Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Blog and Giveaway! Kelly Link-- Author of "Pretty Monsters"

Kelly Link, author of the newly released and already well regarded YA collection of short stories Pretty Monsters was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to write a guest post for me today. As an added bonus, I also have a copy of "Pretty Monsters" to offer for giveaway--just read to the end of the post to find out how to get your hands on a copy! Kate Wilhelm is a writer of mystery novels, classic science fiction novels like Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, a short-story writer, and an anthologist. Along with her husband Damon Knight, she co-founded the Clarion Workshop. Although she was no longer an instructor when I went to Clarion in 1995, one of the most useful pieces of writing advice I've ever come across was something Wilhelm said. To roughly paraphrase, she suggests that every writer indirectly collaborates with her subconscious -- she calls this collaborator your Silent Partner -- who supplies you with ideas that you then turn into stories. Your Silent Partner doesn't discriminate between the good, the bad, the ugly, and the odd. That's your job. When you reject certain kinds of ideas, Wilhelm says, the S.P stops supplying them. If you are too picky, and turn up your nose at all of the ideas that are coming from your subconscious, eventually the S.P stops offering any at all. When you begin to recognize certain kinds of ideas as useful and welcome, Wilhelm suggests that you stop and offer positive reinforcement. That is, think to yourself, "Yes, that's a terrific idea. More like that, please, S.P." -- and the S.P will begin to produce more and more ideas of these fruitful and generative kinds of ideas. As you begin to recognize the kind of ideas that are going to turn into the kind of stories that you want most to write, your subconscious gets even better at fine-tuning the kind of things it provides, as well as faster at giving you useful material. A couple of years ago, when we published Kate Wilhelm's book on writing and workshops, Storyteller, I decided to try out her suggestion about recognizing, welcoming, and fine-tuning the S.P.'s collaborative input, and found that I was having much more fun with the ideas that ended up in the front of my brain, as well as having more ideas of the kind that went somewhere I wanted to go. Perhaps you're a writer who already has a very good well of story ideas. But if, like me, you sometimes run dry, here's an exercise for generating story ideas that I hope fits well with Kate Wilhelm's advice. What I decided to do was to sit down and, very quickly, make a list of things that I most liked in other people's fiction -- these could be thematic, character driven, very general or very specific. I found that when I started this list, it began to incorporate ideas and items which I was inventing as I went along. Here's the list: theme parks cults haunted houses funny! subterranean lakes book within a book, also made up tv shows -- any kind of invented narrative dog walkers pet tragedies twins old mysteries -- bad things that have happened in the past people who know they are doing stupid things, but keep on doing them people who are blamed for doing things they didn't do people who make things people who stage amateur plays / make amateur movies ghost stories governesses & parole officers -- people with power who can make you miserable, or make you do pointless tasks in order to demonstrate their power electrical outages imaginary friends Cat in the Hat-types characters/antagonists/allies poltergeists owls or infestations of wild animals demolition ne'er-do-well relations the octopus the color green pet named "the unsub" b/c mother loves forensic mysteries mocking celebrities metafiction fraught family dynamics weird sexual dynamics plague zombies attics or basements full of things girls who kick ass, not necessarily for a good reason Every once in a while, I revisit this list, to see if there's something on it that generates an idea. I add things as they occur. It's a bit like window shopping. One more way of generating more story ideas. This is something that the writer Greg Frost suggested -- he got it from a talk that the poet/novelist/short story writer Stephen Dobyns gave, and said that Stephen Dobyns himself came up with it after he once asked Raymond Carver about how Carver approached writing short stories. Carver said, "I write the first sentence, and then I write the next sentence and then the next." Apparently this answer at first annoyed Dobyns, whose usual method involved much more planning etc; later, when Dobyns was marooned for two days in a hotel room, feverish, and unable to catch a flight home, he sat down and tried Carver's method. So here's the exercise: without too much preparation, and without spending too much time -- say, more than an hour -- write down 50 first sentences. Later on, sit down with those 50 sentences, pick half of them, and write 25 first paragraphs. Out of those first paragraphs, Dobyns eventually got half a dozen short stories. I've done this exercise with a couple of workshops, and although I can't vouch for the final stories, many of those 50 first sentences were terrific. Speaking as an editor, I was immediately interested in what came next. A couple more random things about story ideas: I often think about stories or characters for a long time before I begin to write them -- during that period when I'm playing around with the things that will go into one story, I will often find that another story begins to take form as well, and that both stories will begin to get bigger, lumpier, and more interesting -- a bit like rolling two Katamari balls at once, if you've ever played Katamari Damacy. Sometimes these story ideas stay separate, and then I'll have a project ready to pick up as soon as I've finished the first story. Sometimes the various story strands will combine into one bigger story ball, and I've learned that this almost always turns out to be interesting and useful as well. Even when you do have a terrific idea for a short story, sometimes it's difficult to know how best to approach it. So far the method that's worked best for me has been to start with dialogue and nothing else -- not even speech tags. If I can get two characters talking to each other, in such a way that their voices and situation are distinct enough to identify w/o descriptions or speech tags or any other kind of distraction, a story begins to take shape. Eventually I go back and revise, but the characters have already begun to come to life in a way that drives the action. As well as useful ideas, there's a particular category of ideas that you, the writer, will never ever use, but which are pleasing, for whatever reason, to contemplate. I welcome these ideas even as I recognize them as ridiculous. They seem like but-wait-there's-more bonus! ideas that you get, for some reason, along with the useful ones -- and sometimes I like these bonus! ideas even better than the ones that become stories or projects. In this category are two titles for anthologies that I will never ever edit, but which I love to contemplate: Manthology is one; the other is Unicats!. One last category of ideas, to end on: those ideas which are fabulous, but which you may not be the best writer to tackle, or which are too complicated to pursue for other reasons. For example, I've never written a script. I have lots of other things I need and want to be working on. And yet, wouldn't it be a blast to remake the movie "Bringing Up Baby" as a paranormal romance? I keep having this vision of the scene in which Cary Grant's character is wearing Katherine Hepburn's negligee. Doesn't the reason why seem obvious? He's just turned back from were-leopard into Cary Grant. ~Kelly Link To enter to win a copy of "Pretty Monsters" just add your information to the form below (all information guaranteed confidential and will be discarded once contest ends) and I will randomly pick a winner by Tuesday June 29th. No multiple entries please--all multiple entries will be discarded. Open everywhere. Good luck. From Publishers Weekly Starred Review. Readers as yet unfamiliar with Link (Magic for Beginners) will be excited to discover her singular voice in this collection of nine short stories, her first book for young adults. The first entry, The Wrong Grave, immediately demonstrates her rare talents: a deadpan narration that conceals the author's metafictional sleight-of-hand (Miles had always been impulsive. I think you should know that right up front); subjects that range from absurd to mundane, all observed with equidistant irony. Miles, hoping to recover the poems he's buried with his dead girlfriend, digs up what appears to be the wrong corpse (It's a mistake anyone could make, interjects the narrator), who regains life and visits her mother, a lapsed Buddhist (Mrs. Baldwin had taken her Buddhism very seriously, once, before substitute teaching had knocked it out of her'). Other stories have more overtly magical or intertextual themes; in each, Link's peppering of her prose with random associations dislocates readers from the ordinary. With a quirky, fairytale style evocative of Neil Gaiman, the author mingles the grotesque and the ethereal to make magic on the page. Ages 12–up. **Contest Closed**


Kate and JB said...

Very enlightening writing exercise! I can imagine quite a few odd stories coming out of it.

SQT said...

I love the list idea-- actually I love all the ideas here. A fellow blogger used to frequently put up writing prompts for flash fiction and those were a lot of fun. I don't write nearly enough because I overwhelm myself with big ideas rather than taking things in bite-sized pieces. If I were to start a list based on my favorite fiction, it would probably go like this...

mythological creatures in urban fiction (like the bodach Rob Thurman used in one of her books)

unusual pets

quest fantasy w/band-of-adventurers

hero who quickly gets in over his/her head

personification of things like death, nature, good and evil


twist where hero-type personality is tragically flawed

I need to think some more-- maybe when it's not one o'clock in the morning. :) I'm afraid I'll look at this tomorrow and be horrified, but it was fun.

cnawan said...

Lists of things I like in other's work is a good idea, if a bit derivative. Usually I pick things from random interesting looking books online (Gutenberg, Google books, Internet archive) or wander through a gallery and add things to my notebook.

I like the weird combinations that proximity in the list can give too, or just misreading signs or ads.

If I was really keen, I'd write a bit of code to pick a random sentence from my scraps file and throw it up on the screen... nah, too lazy.

Nick! said...

A couple of friends and fellow writers have directed people to this post...

Some great tips, there... thanks for getting Kelly to share these.

I tend to think that most of the time it's about tricking yourself to sit down and write in the first place, and anything that gets you sitting, thinking, and typing, is a good thing!

I actually set up a website a couple of years ago based around this idea - each week a writer posts an image and other writers write something inspired by/triggered by it.

The whole reasoning behind the site - Elephant Words, it's called - was that even if the short deadlines necessitated roughness and the occasional idea that doesn't work, at least the six of us would be writing, and writing regularly.

In fact, the quality of work has ended up being generally excellent, and the most heartening thing is how many of the writers who have gone through the site have shown gratitude, citing the experience as being incredibly beneficial to their writing. And all the site does is provide a weekly point of inspiration.

For most of us, I think, coming up with the ideas isn't the hard part - our minds are ticking away coming up with a dozen tiny ones every minute. It's about finding an anchor point around which to gather that imagination, and turn it into something concrete.