Scribbler’s Saga #26 – Ideas

Posted: April 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

“Greg, where do you get your ideas?” 

I sometimes wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me this question. Yes, my answer is usually no better than a shrug because I know I’m speaking to someone that might not understand that being open to ideas is merely a mindset and muscle. If you use it being the weirdest dude in the room for the majority of your life, watch what happens. It isn’t rocket science.

Leaving aside the “stand back, I’m a professional” aspect of getting ideas, perhaps I can put some observations about ideas on paper to help other writers. Allegedly, the point of the Scribbler’s Saga column. So here goes.

I’m sure that many of you out there must’ve seen Dangerous Method or some other movie about psychoanalysis and just assumed that we as writers go to bed get a fun dream and go “aha!” I’m not knocking the let your dreams do the heavy lifting solution. I’ve used it a few times myself, emphasis on a few.

I had read once the Robert Louis Stevenson came up with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde out of a screaming nightmare and promptly got snippy at his family members that woke him up…in the middle of the story. According to the narrative I read, he found his way back to that dark place in order to finish the story a few days later.

Personally, I took that story with a grain of salt because, if true, it unbalances what writing actually is in favor of a cool story that wouldn’t last the minute we face the blank page or blinking cursor. Writing is as much about consciously studying and surgically crafting as much of everything as we can. How much of Mr. Stevenson’s seminal scary dream actually survived to the second draft?

For a modern writer, how much of that dream gets shafted by the need to apply the lessons of the many books that teach us to tell a story, or at least a certain kind of story? Did your dream place moments that the late Blake Snyder would recognize as Act Turns, Fun and Games, the Midpoint or The All is Lost Moment in places that were slightly out of their traditional slots? If so, the writer then either edits out the extra stuff or he or she decides that a page or two of imperfect lumpiness actually makes the script or manuscript interesting and further edits will be someone else’s problem.

I’m not always sure how much actual story lives in our dreams. I tried to milk a sweating nightmare where I fought demons and woke up just before getting strangled by Beelzebub, I think, for a college writing assignment. I still got my ass handed to me on the readability of that pretentious story. Why? I was eighteen and didn’t know what I know now.

I’ve found the narrative usefulness of my dreams to be about cool images and juxtapositions of those images. The most vivid recent dream that cut through the fact that I stopped writing this stuff down a long time ago involved guys in orange flight suits that I instantly associated with X-Wing pilots, though I think their helmets were rounder like football helmets with the face masks removed. That and I saw a field of what I assume to be magic mushrooms at my feet. Nothing about that I spent the rest of the dream yelling at somebody about a missing story element, a thread since lost to the ether the minute I woke up.

I do better when I’m conscious and ready to rock and roll. There is still a element of subconscious psychology at work, but less pronounced than the cheaty-head method Robert Louis Stevenson alleged where the dream wrote the whole work for him. I have several personal case studies from different works with similarities and differences.

TALL FIRES AND LADYBUGS – this upcoming work involves a young lady much like Paris Hilton who has been pushed by her mother into riding a flesh droid as a firefighter in order to gain life experience different from being a billionaire trust fund baby. Essentially, I binge watched Rescue Me and simply had an epiphany. Now to be fair, the flesh droid part of the story is a total borrow of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, but with a little bit of the “more of the same, but with a twist” storytelling sensibilities we’ve come to expect from the average Hollywood gatekeeper.

There is more to this story in that you’ll notice the bit about the mother. That’s relates to my personal life and my previous suggestion to you that you should Write Who You Know. Tiger-moms, to steal a buzzy phrase, show up in my work in all their glory, whether nice of massively difficult, quite a bit. That personal hint is all you get out of me without buying beer, then I’ll temporarily mistake you for a good friend who wants to hear my shit.

But, getting back to the firefighters and flesh droid story. What might this example teach you? Watch TV for sure, just like you should also read books for different reasons perhaps. But, watch with an eye towards using the blender approach, aka the Player Pitch. Listen to what this pitch actually is…Chicago Fire meets Dollhouse. Right to the point about flesh droids and more than enough fire for the average literary arsonist. Buy me beer and I’ll tell you why the pitch isn’t Rescue Me meets Dollhouse or why I don’t want to go with the original title – Ride Along.

SMOKING LIZARD-VERSE SPANDEX-HEROES – My spandex characters exist in their current unformed state in a version of Los Angeles due to several instances of figuratively and/or literally yelling – “you got it wrong!” – at the page or screen. I watched Wanted and hated the movie for the same reasons I might hate any comics to screen adaptation, indifferent care taken with the source material resulting in stupid. I hated the graphic novel upon trying to read it because it put me in a foul black place.

So I started writing a set of spandex characters based on my belief that, at least in stories, Good and Evil seek equilibrium with each other. That the absence of spandex-heroes can only be a temporary state of affairs eventually rectified by an accident of the same Chaos Theory that set loose all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. And that an absence of spandex-villains means Batman needs to retire and settle down with the latest trophy girlfriend. Yeah, once I get these characters into better shape I need to thank Mark Millar, even though I might not want to. And then I just didn’t like how old-timey comics books handled Los Angeles when originally written from New York.

This example teaches us that the things you don’t like can spark a good idea.

MONSTER REALITY SHOW – Where did I get the idea to put monsters on a highly competitive reality show for the right to scare people, possibly including a certain Orange President? I cracked wise on Facebook and wrote the good bits down in my note taking app, One Note. A well-regarded TV actor that might make the jump to out and out film star depending on how his talks to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe go commented to several entertainment news sites about his love for Dungeons & Dragons, even to the point of writing a script. At some point in my supportive but snark filled comments I ask how a Beholder, a very iconic D&D monster, got that way including “did he beat out the Mind Flayer on Monster Got Talent?”

The offhand comment leading to a lightbulb happens all the time for me. This is why note taking apps exist.

While I’m here on Monster Reality Show, it also represents an example of idea creep. The minute that the object of winning the contest becomes about sticking it to Dried Orange Peel Man the next question about monsters doing their patriotic part to discomfit that man should be wouldn’t Abe Lincoln’s ghost corner that market? So now I’ve expanded the story into an automatic part two where the winner then plays knuckle poker with Honest Abe over who tortures Cheeto-lini the most.

Expanding the idea is not necessarily good because a journalism teacher once plaintively reminded me that articles “are about one thing!” The reality show is one movie. The three-way throw down between the monster, dead president and current president is one movie. Putting both together ruins both unless I’m somehow Stanley Kubrick doing Full Metal Jacket.

And so now we come full circle to the truth that just because I got a brilliant idea doesn’t mean the story will be any better than the product of a hackmeister who cynically starts from from a Blake Snyder beat sheet and hopes something good will come of it. I still have to figure out, for instance, how to incorporate X-Wing pilots with magic mushrooms without it being too much like this moment from Heavy Metal – “the trick to flying on Nyborg is you got to know your perspective is farked and you just got to let your hands drive like you’re sober.” It is what we do with our eyes open facing that cursor that defines our work, the funky dream is just a bonus.

Ideas come from all over the place and land on the people who did a little bit of the same thing yesterday (aka experience). We crack wise and feel aha! We wake up from. We force ourselves through that ugly date scene and get a completely different idea that goes onto the list so we can keep typing. And when all else fails I roll dice and consult writing flip books and apps, but that bit of cheating is the subject of another post…

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