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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Fast Car – A Short Story

This week I decided to take another approach to talking about writing process. What good is talking theory if I provide no means of applying it? This week, I decided to write a short story and share it. If I have some short stories up here I can refer back to them as examples. Enjoy!

Music dribbles out of tinny speakers onto the patrons.

You’ve got a fast car.

They’re all frozen in place, awkwardly strained to look past their reflections in the floor-to-ceiling windows.

I want a ticket to anywhere.

A twenty-something in a peacoat strokes his patchy beard while he stares. His girlfriend tugs at her scarf. She cocks her head and her hand hesitates over her phone. “Should I take a picture?” is the guilty question she’s asking herself. Gravity seems to pull her face down and she pushes the phone away.

Starting from zero got nothing to lose.

I let myself look out to the parking lot again. Just past the “Exit Only” sign, the front end of a Civic straddles a teetering lamp post. Rain mingles with steam from the engine block.

Maybe we’ll make something.

The arc of granules rattled against the window on impact.

There’s a mist on the window distinctly darker than the raindrops.

Did they feel anything?

All we hear is distant sirens and the words: I got a plan to get us outta here.

“Should I go help?” Anna says. Her words are disjoint.

“I don’t… I dunno,” I say. The soft orange ambiance is interrupted by flashing red lights. A fire truck slows down on the opposite side of the street, passes, then comes back around and pulls into the parking lot.

Anna stands. She looks unsure of what to do, but something must be better than nothing, right?

“No, no, honey,” comes a booming, age-laden voice from behind me. I turn to see an older man shaking his head gently. “Let them do their work. It’ll be alright.”

You got a fast car.

Anna’s hand shakes a little as she holds the arm of the chair to set herself down. Her back faces the window and she doesn’t turn around again.

Is it fast enough so we can fly away?

I lift my phone but there are no notifications. I thought everyone heard the crash. They wanna know I’m okay, don’t they?

That’s just adrenaline, Anna would say. That’s your mind playing tricks on you.

We gotta make a decision.

It’s only just beyond the window that the world fell apart. Already, paramedics scramble to put it back together. A silhouette hangs off their gurney and disappears into the back of the ambulance.

Leave tonight or live and die this way.

“Did you wanna…” but Anna’s not listening and the only way back to my car is past the wreck, so I don’t finish the question. I come around to her side of the table and sit close. It’s better not having to look.

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts. I’ll be here next week with another story or some analysis!

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

Starting a Dialogue

I have a drawer where my bad writing goes to die. Inside are literally millions of cringe-worthy words I’ll never read again. I got better at writing because I made mistakes with such gusto that by a few months in, it didn’t hurt to fix them anymore.

Unfortunately, I didn’t document that process. I didn’t even think critically about it. Writing was something I had to do, not something I tried to do.

I want this blog to give me (and you) a window into my writing process. I could talk more about what I hope for it to be about, but it’s far more interesting to just get into it. Let’s start with my latest project.

Love Drug is a serial novel I’ve been writing for about a year now. I’ve never written so much for a project, nor have I ever written something that so closely resembles what I imagine.

The story follows a business developer, Everett, and a marketing student, Ada, as they brand and market a drug, called Libra, designed to solve intimacy issues.

Before I began writing Love Drug, my stories would be about one person who inevitably represented me (no matter how I tried to obscure or change myself). I didn’t just want to follow a single character anymore. I wanted this story to be different, so I made Love Drug about a man and a woman.

I’ve watched myself and others try to fix spiritual and emotional problems with pills, so I wanted to take the modern idea of the “happy pill” to an extreme: a love drug.

Stories about love potions have been around for ages, but inspired by Brave New World and my own search for answers in pills, I thought I could bring something new to the genre.

The idea of two people pursuing love in such a mechanistic and cynical way was irresistible. How would it affect them? What would their relationship look like?

For Love Drug to be accessible, though, I needed to make my characters unique and separate from myself.

This was difficult. I can’t escape from being myself. There’s going to be some part of me in everything I write, so rather than run from it, I decided to acknowledge and embrace it.

Ada and Everett’s characters each represent a different part of me. I’m loath to simplify them here, but for the sake of this post I will. Ada became the smart, anxious, and naive me and Everett became the ambitious, confident, and introspective me.

Splitting up my personality like this left my characters incomplete, like partial sets of chromosomes. Instead of filling in the gaps with what I thought was best, I started writing my characters into their world the way they were, incomplete. It wasn’t intentional, but something fascinating happened: they themselves began to fill in the missing pieces.

Ada’s inability to be introspective lead her to understand the world in a way that I never have, a way entirely her own. Everett’s confidence and experience (without my anxiety) helped him become his own person. By two chapters in, I knew two people who had never existed before.

Once I had woven Everett and Ada into the world I’d created, it took on a life that I couldn’t possibly have planned.

I’ll have more on that next time, but for now you can see what I mean by reading Love Drug here.

Until next time,

gjk

Image Source: Klassen (2016)