Thursday, June 17, 2010

Writing Workshop, part 2—The Idea Mill

(continued from Part 1)

The Idea Mill

There are three strategies that I use to get ideas.   

Question Everything

Apples and Oranges

List and Twist

Question Everything is probably the strategy I use most often.  It is linked heavily to the skill of observation and research.  In my presentation, I showed a picture of James Christenson’s delightful painting, Lawrence Pretended…  (For those of you who do not want to follow the link, it’s a painting of a very oddly dressed man whose shirt appears to be attached to the nose of a large, black bear.  The man is looking sideways at the bear—not fearful or anything; the bear is not threatening him or preparing to do anything dangerous.  It’s just standing there.  You should click the link, though; James Christensen is a wonderful artist.)

I asked the class what kind of questions came to their minds when they saw the art.  They responded variously:

Are you really a dude?

Why is there a bear eating your clothes?

Why is your face so thin, but your body so fat?

Aren’t you worried about the bear?

Why are you ignoring the bear?

What’s the deal with the bird?

Wait,” said I.  “What bird?”

The kids then pointed out the bird on the top of the fence, which I had completely missed.  Observant, see?  :)

The point of asking questions within your story is to find an answer that makes you thrill, or that sends off a little bell in your head: that thrill, or that bell tells you that the answer you’ve come up with is the right one.  Or at least, the most interesting one right now.  Rarely is the first answer you come up with the one that sings.  Tim Powers, I believe, said that when you do this exercise, the good answers start coming after three tries.  So, some answers from the class:

Are you really a dude?

  • Yes.  I really am
  • No, I’m a girl with thin hands.
  • No, I’m a girl who has to dress like a man because otherwise the bear would eat me.

To which, I asked, “Why is the bear a misogynist?”  And then I got LOTS of questions and a very stern look from the teacher.  But they got the point.  And I’ve been immune to stern looks since I was ten.

Question Everything works as an idea generation technique because so many things in life aren’t explained, or the accepted explanation doesn’t satisfy.  It just takes some observation to notice the bear that’s tugging on your shirt, begging to be questioned.

Apples and Oranges is something I first I learned from Orson Scott Card.  The idea is that you take two unrelated things and push them into a story together.  I showed the following picture…


…and asked what story the kids thought it came from.  After a little while, they were able to identify the story as Beauty and the Beast.

Apples and Oranges: you take two completely unrelated concepts, squish them together and then Question Everything. 

We workshopped this one a little bit; I had two volunteers shout out two random objects.  We came up with a hamburger, and a duck.  What evolved out of those ideas was a pretty neat story involving a young man who was transformed into a duck, and who, in order to transform back into a man again, had to eat a hamburger made from the meat of his best friend…

The last strategy that I use to get ideas is List and Twist.  John Brown identified this one; before he had a name for it, it was something I did unconsciously.  In List and Twist, you take an item with some sort of emotional or philosophical value—I used the Easter Bunny—and you twist it to mean something else (or something more) altogether.  The Easter Bunny is:

      • Cheerful
      • Generous
      • Hated by dentists
      • Plump

What if you twisted the Easter Bunny to be

  • Gloomy; alternatively, not cheerful, but possessed of a frenetic and unyielding glee…
  • Self-serving  and creepy (“Want some candy little girl?”)
  • The incarnation of the the Anglo-Saxon Eostre—hunted by men of science and theology
  • Not just plump, but a monster of obesity.

    I pointed out that this is a technique used by a lot of writers of horror stories.  You take something familiar and banal (and I had to explain the word banal…) and twist it in some way to make it otherworldly, suspicious, or dreadful.  Haunted houses, ghosts of loved ones, sports cars, beloved pets—all victims of List and Twist.

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