Plots, Personal Inspiration, & Popular Fiction Writing
Part II – How Inspiration Is Personal
For many of us, it’s Write or Die.
Because our life is made from writing. This is how we experience things, this is how we figure things out, this is how we process life.
As Bradbury wrote in the Prelude:
“And what, you ask, does writing teach us?
“First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.”
“We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.
“A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.
“But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Bradbury’s essays, collected in this single volume, tell more about his writing style and how he came to his success.
The inspiring point to me is that he follows Jack London, O. Henry, and other writers who started out with short stories and graduated to longer works.
And, like Koontz, he also worked from a single draft as a submission.
This then supports the “pantzer” approach to writing. Bradbury also sets the example of using his own life as inspiration for his stories. Using his writing to “make sense” of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” Shakespeare wrote about.
All this is to say that you should be writing with the understanding that your stories will leap fully-armed from your brow (mind) and onto the physical or digital page and come to life.
You live, you write, and your legacy is your stories. You use writing as a therapy to endure life as it is presented. And so people can read your stories and in turn understand your world, through the worlds and characters you create. Which come from the life you experienced.
Bradbury doesn’t hold that any truths or revelations he declares in this book is any different or original than earlier poets, artists, or philosophers have known.
This book of essays is how Bradbury survived living. And why.
The Joy of Writing Short
“What has all this to do with writing the short story in our times?
“Only this: if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself.
“You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.
“Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.
“How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or your real hatred somehow got onto the paper? When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
There is a trick to this, a formula Bradbury worked out to write his stories. It runs on imagination, with faith as a fuel.
It’s much simpler than suspected.
“So, simply then, here is my formula.
“What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate?
“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders.
“Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. The zest and gusto of his need, and there is zest in hate as well as in love, will fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.
“All of this is primarily directed to the writer who has already learned his trade; that is, has put into himself enough grammatical tools and literary knowledge so he won’t trip himself up when he wants to run. The advice holds good for the beginner, too, however, even though his steps may falter for purely technical reasons. Even here, passion often saves the day.”
This has been the core of his success. You take the cards dealt you by life and use them for inspiration to the stories. This is how you can “make sense” of all that comes your way.
You have to note also that Bradbury wrote a thousand words a day, every day, since he was 12. This is a way of practicing your craft and perfecting it. The last paragraph in the above quote mentions this. Master your craft, and the inspiration can flow from your experiences onto the page.
Bradbury was a fan of the concept of keeping lists of inspiration. Ideas or words that brought ideas to mind. One of his essays simply told the different stories he’d gotten out of a single word or phrase on that list, how he wrote it and how he sold it.
His “Martian Chronicles” was a collection of short stories that had been inspired years before.
“[Kutner] gave me a copy of ‘Winesburg, Ohio’, by Sherwood Anderson. Finishing the book, I said to myself, “Someday I would like to write a novel laid on the planet Mars, with somewhat similar people.” I immediately jotted down a list of the sorts of folks I would want to plant on Mars, to see what would happen.
“I forgot Winesburg, Ohio and my list. Over the years, I wrote a series of stories about the Red Planet. One day, I looked up and the book was finished, the list complete, The Martian Chronicles on its way to publication.”
All of these were in working his life out in his fiction. Making lists, referring to them as needed, years later finishing them off as stories. Writing more lists, rinse, repeat.
The point here is that his life (as well as Jack London and O. Henry) have proved the model of writing short stories and collecting them up into longer works.
The other point is to enjoy yourself thoroughly as you take all your friends, family, relatives, and chance acquaintances along with you on your journey.
Care and Feeding of Your Muse
“What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse. They are two names for one thing. But no matter what we call it, here is the core of the individual we pretend to extol, to whom we build shrines and hold lip services in our democratic society. Here is the stuff of originality. For it is in the totality of experience reckoned with, filed, and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world. For no man sees the same events in the same order, in his life. One man sees death younger than another, one man knows love more quickly than another. Two men, as we know, seeing the same accident, file it with different cross references, in another part of their own alien alphabet. There are not one-hundred elements, but two billion elements in the world.”
This is more direct writing that the sum of your experiences builds the Muse, the subconscious, that brings your ideas to you.
“The Muse, to belabor the point then, is there, a fantastic storehouse, our complete being. All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth. And yet we know it is not as easy as that. We know how fragile is the pattern woven by our fathers or uncles or friends, who can have their moment destroyed by a wrong word, a slammed door, or a passing fire-wagon. So, too, embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out.”
In that, we see the difference between non-fiction and fiction, between blockbusters and genre fiction, between good and bad renditions.
Good stories tell Why’s. So-so stories tell How-to’s. When you can reach down into the core of your character and show the world a beating heart, then let your characters flow through and build your story, then your Muse is serving you well, and is well paid for its efforts.
You get better with your craft by writing constantly, every day. Every. Day. Otherwise, you do not gratify your Muse and she will shut you out. Poorly or clumsily written prose serves no writer or their Muse well. You must practice and every story should be the best you are capable at the time.
Feeding your Muse means taking in a wide variety of material. It’s a common practice to read what you like and to write in that genre. You can re-use those plots. You can imitate the prose style. You can see how the other author’s pacing affects your writing and the reading.
But also read widely in many areas. Travel books, Classic plays, Poetry, Essays, even what passes for “news” these days. All this feeds your muse. All this builds latent inspiration ready to spring on you at any given moment.
And take some time to simply free associate and write down lists and ideas into your notebook. There is no organization. Even cut out images and paste them there. Anything that strikes your fancy. Everything you can. When you fill up a notebook, start another.
“The Feeding of the Muse then, which we have spent most of our time on here, seems to me to be the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against one’s present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naïve ones to more informed ones, from nonintellectual to intellectual ones. Nothing is ever lost. If you have moved over vast territories and dared to love silly things, you will have learned even from the most primitive items collected and put aside in your life. From an ever-roaming curiosity in all the arts, from bad radio to good theatre, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka’s Castle, there is basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths found, kept, savored, and used on some later day. To be a child of one’s time is to do all these things.
“Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime. The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story. What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed? Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator. At the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold.”
This book I picked up following my own advice (and testing it) to get a stack of books written by successful authors (the real brand names out there) and then study them. Read the ideas from those who have actually been there, done that.
There are hundreds of also-ran wannabe’s writing “genre non-fiction” on how to write. Most of them are pure and unholy crap. Even the ones that somehow fall into Amazon’s recommended piles. If they survive you viewing the table of contents, and the first five pages, they will usually give you enough truly stupid non-sensical data by the first few chapters to regret you spent the $3.99 on them.
However, when you can find these gems by the real McCoy’s, then you can treasure and review them at length to share them again to the world.
Listen to your Muse, follow her lead wherever it goes. Care for her needs, keep her well fed. And your success as a writer is assured.
When Stories Are Alive
Bradbury tells an interesting essay about his work on “Farenheit 451”.
He rewrote that story several times, and never in the same way.
The first was written in the typing room in the basement of the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. There he spent dimes in the timers for 30 minutes to bring this story to life. In nine days, he had 25,000 words as a first draft, half of what the novel would eventually be.
Then, circa 1982, he then brought it back to life again for the Studio Theatre Playhouse.
“What’s new, I said to Montag, Clarisse, Faber, Beatty, since last we met in 1953?
“I asked. They answered.
“They wrote new scenes, revealed odd parts of their as yet undiscovered souls and dreams. The result was a two-act drama, staged with good results, and in the main, fine reviews.”
What follows is a discussion between Montag and the Fire Chief, which revealed the secrets of the Fire Chief.
You see, the Fire Chief had an apartment filled with books. The law had a loophole. It wasn’t illegal to own books, it was illegal to read them.
The conversation in the play didn’t change the book at all. It gave a prequel and a sequel to it, and added action to various players.
This reminds me of how Chris Vogler wrote in his “The Writer’s Journey” a follow-up essay in his later editions, about how stories are alive.
Not only do they make an effect on you on a glandular level, where you feel a good or back story by the feeling in your gut and the nape hairs on your neck. They also have a life of their own.
It’s the writer’s job to be the midwife. Or to be a Zeus and carve them out of clay, breathing into them to get them into motion.
Books come and go, with a pulse of buying and sharing and downloading. Through the ages, the best will continue to be sold and shared and collected.
This is their pulse.
Your job as the author is to interview these characters, and shape their narrative into a cohesive and enthralling, tension-filled, spare story. One that punches readers in the gut, makes tears of joy stream down their faces, and also raises hackles of fear, while it quickens their pulse to make them feel honored to be alive to witness it.
Stories teach us things. They make us evolve from the vicarious lessons we learn. They bring excitement into otherwise dull lives as we live out our shoddy narratives in an unfeeling world.
And so you must take care to bring your story into this world in the best genre, with the sparest prose, and a perfectly tuned rising action-enabled tension until the climax. Then bring everyone back to their seat with a proper resolution.
The writer has to get the story and then turn it into a gripping plot. The prose has to be decent, and few distractions to the reader.
Any story can be told in any genre. Change the setting, the action-sequence, the character relationships. Then you have a mystery, or an action-adventure, or a romance. If it winds up out in space, it’s science fiction. If you don’t know who committed the crime, but the main character dons a deerstalker cap, then you have a detective mystery. Make is all about the relationship of the main female lead with her attractive, but chaste boyfriend in an old mansion, and you have a gothic romance. Make him into a vampire, and you have gone into the paranormal.
Your job as writer is to take the inspiration you’ve been given and write it the best way you know how. You bring the story to life and give it just enough to live on until the readers can find it. If you’ve done your job, they’ll recommend it to others.
Meanwhile, you’ve been steadily bringing other stories to life. Each one only as long as it needs to be. Each one better than the last. And several hundred published stories later, your monkeys may have produced your masterpiece.
Not that it matters.
Because you’ve enjoyed every second of your own journey as a writer.
And so have your stories.
Bradbury gave some advice toward the end of the book on how to do this:
“You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, “Well, to hell with you.” And the cat says, “Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.” Then the cat follows you out of curiosity: “Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t love me?”
“Well, that’s what an idea is. See? You just say, “Well, hell, I don’t need depression. I don’t need worry. I don’t need to push.”
“The ideas will follow me. When they’re off-guard, and ready to be born, I’ll turn around and grab them.”
Next: Part III – Making Popular Fiction, from Dean Koontz’ “Writing Popular Fiction”
Also published on Medium.