3 Dystopian Books to (Re)Read over the Holiday

One of the things I’m going to do with my Christmas break is dig back into some old novels I haven’t touched in ages. A big part of becoming a good writer is reading other people’s writing – the first time for fun, and then the second (third, fourth…) time to find out what they did to make you like the story so much.

Here are three books I’m going to reread over the holidays. You’ll notice these have a bit of a dystopian tone, which is maybe fitting given the way 2016 went.

The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman follows Hank, a detective from New Hampshire, as he tries to solve a crime while a meteor hurtles towards Earth. Everyone else thinks Hank should give up on the case because the world will be dust soon anyway, but he feels he has to pursue it. This one is definitely worth checking out, and it’s part of a trilogy so there’s a lot to dig into here!

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

If you’re not a heavy reader, you’ve probably seen the film adaptation of this book about an overtired office worker who starts a fight club. The movie is probably one of the better adaptations of a novel I’ve seen, but if you haven’t read the book, you’re missing out.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns. This novel is about censorship, book burning, and the death of feeling. If you didn’t read this in high school, I say it’s mandatory reading. If you did, now’s a great time to reread it and see just how applicable this 1953 novel still is today.

Which of these looks like the best read to you? Leave a comment and please remember to share!

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3 Types of Writing Ideas (and How to Find a Great One)

Last time, we talked about setting aside time for writing and priming your imagination with writing prompts.

Whether your story is about a dark, dystopian future, tangling with the mob, or sitting at the University of Winnipeg writing blog posts, you’re going to go through a lot of bad ideas.

Bad Ideas

“How do I know when an idea is bad (or good for that matter)?”

Good question, reader. Well, the easiest ones to filter are the purely bad ones. Those ideas are not very interesting to you, and by extension, you won’t be able to make them interesting to anyone else. This seems obvious, but more than once I’ve spent time trying to force a bad idea into a story.

(Seemingly) Good Ideas

Next come the ideas that seem good. These are initially very interesting but lose their shine after a few words, sentences, or even pages. “Good” ideas are tricky, and I know this because most Hollywood movie fare is comprised of just such ideas.

I’ll use the movie The Accountant as an example: a troubled genius accountant falls in love with a beautiful girl and takes on cartels with lots of guns. Sure, it’s flashy, and maybe we want to be that troubled-but-badass guy who gets the girl, but is it interesting?

A good way to tell is to see where the story goes later on. I can watch nearly any movie for the first half hour and be interested. Who knows where it could go, right? There’s so much potential in those first few minutes, but then they go downhill (check the bottom of this review of The Accountant for an example).

My theory (which is strengthened every time I go to the theatre or library) is that if you try to take a flashy idea and make it into a story, you’ll run into issues tying it up at the end. You’ll resort to cheap tactics like plot twists, or worse, you’ll write in awful leaps of logic to get where you wanted to go and hope no one notices (if you want an excellent example, check here).

So how does one determine whether an idea is good? Not only have we thrown out bad ideas, but we’re also discounting ones that seem flashy and pique interest immediately. What’s left?!

Great Ideas

A great idea will come up like a little blip on the radar. It’s gonna be innocuous and it won’t seem flashy, but you’ll get a good feeling from it. Every great idea I’ve had hasn’t given me the same sort of rush as novelty (guns, sex, intrigue) does.

When you find a great idea, the first reaction is something like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” With Love Drug, it was the premise, but then the characters became more fascinating. Then the world surrounding them, and the politics of pharmaceuticals… When you find your great idea, you’ll feel like you’ve found the rabbit hole.

When you try to write about your great idea, it won’t be a chore. It won’t be difficult to figure out what the next scene is and you’ll stop dreading word count goals.

Although you might be in awe of your great idea, other people might think it’s weird, or silly, or just not interesting. Do not be surprised by this. Strip down any classic piece of literature to its basic premise and you’ll have something that sounds strange or boring to write about.

Your idea may be really mundane, or personal, or even just odd, but that’s the exciting part of it. Your job now is to make other people see your idea the way you do. Carve the excess marble from around your sculpture, so to speak.

The punchline of all this is that you don’t need to stress about finding a good idea for a twist, or a new fantasy world, or the sexiest thing you can imagine. You need to find an idea that’s the most you and take it from the depths of your mind to the page. The only thing between you and that goal is practice – something we’ll deal with next time.

Until then, leave me a comment about your successes and failures in the search for great ideas!

Image Source: Luis Beltrán

The First Step to Overcoming Writer’s Block

So, you want to write a novel. You’re reading blogs about it. You’ve done some work, but it’s not coming as quickly as you’d like.

Maybe you wrote down the one scene that lit your mind on fire and now you don’t know where to go with it.

Maybe you haven’t even gotten there yet, and all you know is a character. Or a concept. Or just a sweet little line of dialogue.

Maybe you’re sitting there with a blank page and you’re saying to yourself, “Is this what writer’s block feels like?”

Yup. Welcome to the club. It’s okay, though. I’m going to take you through the process and we’ll see if we can’t get you writing again.

This first step is a bit intense. It usually takes a fair bit to get writing after you’ve stalled, and that’s what I’m describing here. After that, it becomes easier and you don’t have to put so much effort in, so don’t think, “Oh no! I have to do this every time?!”

You have to cut out a chunk of time for writing. I don’t just mean set up a Google Calendar goal (though that’s not a terrible idea). I mean say to yourself, “Saturday afternoon (or Thursday evening, or…) I’m going to write and nothing else.” Don’t put a number of minutes or hours on it. Set aside an entire afternoon or evening aside.

For this chunk of time, you are a writer. Do not answer emails. Do not look at Facebook. Do not text or work or anything else.

Now, you may not be productive for every minute of this time, and that’s okay. In fact, in order to get good writing done, you need to have some time to let your mind wander. If you have a whole evening to write, it means there’s nothing at the end for you to be looking forward to or distract you. It’s just you and the page.

Just you and the page… that sounds daunting. Don’t let it be. Your value is not how many words you can get down in an hour. In fact, the sooner you forget about metrics and benchmarks, the sooner you’ll just be able to write. You have all the time in the world here.

There are now three options for you:

  1. You can let your mind wander
  2. You can think about your scene (actively)
  3. You can actually write

Letting your mind wander is useful, but it’s best to prime your daydream time with some structure by thinking actively about your scene.

Remember that bit of dialogue or character we were talking about earlier? Write that down on your blank page. You’re going to turn that into a scene.

If all you have is a bit of dialogue that you like, start thinking about who said it. What sort of voice did they say it in? Who was it to? Was it internal dialogue? If it’s ordinary dialogue, what situation would make it sound strange or exotic? If it’s something extraordinary, what world might it be commonplace in?

If all you have is a character, think about what situation you could put that character to show who they truly are. What does she dream of being one day? What does he think about with a gun to his head? What is her dark secret?

These are all writing prompts, and there are a million blogs you can find to get more of them. Now we’ve primed your imagination with a mold for ideas. Next time we’ll talk about how to guide your daydreaming and make a scene! Stay tuned, and in the meantime leave me a comment so I can hear about your experiences with writer’s block!

Image Credit: Drew Coffman