This week is a special week as I help host a blog tour for Jozi Flash 2017 by South African Authors! Joining me today is Nicolette Stephens, one of the authors of this flash fiction anthology as well as the publisher from Chasing Dreams Publishing. She wrote a guest post to promote the book for Galit over at Coffee ‘N’ Notes. Unfortunately, Galit was unable to participate as something came up so I’ve taken it upon myself to publish the post. Please be sure to check out Galit’s blog though as she’s a wonderful writer and lovely person!
Conception – Pulling Ideas out of Thin Air
I’ve been working on a series of writing exercises, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share the first in the series I’m calling “Quarks”.
Quark (noun: a theoretical subatomic particle.)
In physics, quarks are contemplated as being the building blocks of hadrons. Now, physics doesn’t really have much to do with creative writing, but quark is a great word to describe all the little bits and pieces that go into creating stories. Whether it’s flash fiction, poetry, novels or plays, telling a tale requires certain elements to complete it. Quarks take these elements and explore them in bite-sized chunks that, when put together, help you to understand and build a story from conception, to the end.
In this guest post for Coffee n Notes, you’ll find some exercises for finding inspiration from the world around you and crafting stories even when you don’t feel inspired.
When you decide to tell a story, you’re making a decision to translate abstract thoughts into words that others will resonate with. Sometimes this is a fairly simple process, but often, writers find themselves at a loss.
There are many reasons why this happens, but mostly it’s ascribed to a lack of inspiration, fondly named Writer’s Block. There are a lot of different theories on what causes Writer’s Block, and even more methods to get you out of it.
One of the most popular is that you may have run out of ideas. So in this quark, we’re going to look at where you can find inspiration, which are really just ideas pulled out of thin air.
Where to find inspiration?
Inspiration isn’t a whimsical fairy that strikes whenever she feels like it. Rather, it’s akin to a puppy, which can either be left to run wild and disappear after an interesting scent ignoring all your attempts to recall it, or with training and patience, will become a loyal friend, responding faithfully to your commands.
As with puppies though, training inspiration is not a one-time task. It’s a continual process that continues with regular reinforcement.
When you are inspired to create something, whether it’s a piece of writing, art or a school project; it simply means that you’ve had an idea you want to make concrete. Thoughts and ideas are abstract, but when you use them to create something, you turn them into a concrete form that can be appreciated by others.
Good ideas are considered to be as elusive as inspiration, but in general, the only thing lacking in creating an inspired idea is a process that works the majority of the time. Not everyone will think and respond the same way to the same process – if you don’t believe me, just ask people how they interpret emoticons. While some of the expressions are universal, the way people use and interpret them are often very different.
The same holds true with processes designed to inspire ideas for writers. Writing prompts work fairly often, so they’ve become very popular with writers across the board. A Google search on creative writing ideas will give you a host of different resources you can use.
In this quark though, we look at something closer to home. Your immediate environment.
If you look around you at this moment, you are surrounded by objects, places, words, people and emotions.
Exercise 1 – Bits and bobs
In this exercise, I want you to list five of each of the above from your immediate environment as I’ve done in the example below.
Objects: Pencil box, owl statue, oil paints, handkerchief, yoga mat.
Places: Field across the road, shopping mall, neighbour’s driveway, abandoned railway station, lawyer’s office.
Words: Bottle, loquacious, train, noise, birds.
People: Shoppers, young child, train passengers, pedestrian, homeless man.
Emotions: Happiness, fear, curiosity, anger, grief.
You may find that you end up linking several of the categories without meaning to, because your mind will automatically form associations between items. That’s okay, use the table and split them up in their categories, or keep them in the same row if you like the association between them.
Words and objects are very similar categories, but whereas objects are commonplace things found in your immediate surroundings, words can be anything you’ve seen, heard or thought about recently.
Wherever possible, try to apply your current environment to the list. Emotions for example, may not be what you’re currently feeling, but maybe you’ve felt them in the last few days, or it’s something you imagine someone else would have felt when you saw them in a certain situation.
Your turn: List five of each object, place, words, people and emotions.
Exercise 2 – What’s the catch?
Ask who, what, where, why, when and how.
The object of this exercise isn’t to ask logical questions that can be answered with the most common response. Rather, it’s designed to engage the creative side of your brain.
So for example, don’t use “who” with the “people” category for your first round of questions.
Below is an example of a question phrased for one item in each category:
Object: Owl statue.
Question: Where did the statue come from and why is it chipped on the corner?
Place: Lawyer’s office.
Question: Why is the exterior of the building so run down for what seems to be a profitable business, given that the car that’s always parked there is a top of the line BMW?
Question: Where was he going in such a hurry that he didn’t see the car turning the corner before he stepped out into the road?
Question: Who would use a word like that in an everyday situation and what do they do for a living?
Question: What is it about curiosity that it seems to be as contagious as yawning?
Some of these questions may end up never being used – I don’t like the one I created about curiosity for instance, so I may try to think of something else to ask that gets me a response I’m excited about, but I will only do that later, when I’ve exhausted the answers to my first questions.
Your turn: Ask a question about each of the items on your list. You can choose one item from each category, or do it for all of them dependent on how much time you have available.
Exercise 3 – Seeking Answers
The third and final exercise is when you start the process of developing your story. Although the answers to the questions you asked in Exercise 2 are kept simple, they form the basis of your plot – the hook you use to reel in an audience.
There are different methods you can use to answer the questions, and it’s a good idea to switch between them regularly when doing these exercises. Sometimes you’ll find one that works really well, and it will become a habit to use that for everything, which may result in writing which follows a predictable pattern for readers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there’s not really a right or wrong in any form of art, writing included – but challenging yourself brings you out of your comfort zone and often inspires you. So don’t be afraid to try new things.
Below, I’ve used the question about the lawyer and a technique called word association to answer it:
Technique: Word Association. We’ve all played games where someone says a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head in response. This is similar, where each word builds on the last to slowly develop a story. When you run out of words, use the words you’ve come up with to piece together the full sentence.
Answer: Lawyer – criminal – defence – failed – arrested – innocent – broke. The lawyer is a criminal defence lawyer who failed to get his client acquitted. The client was actually innocent, but went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. The lawyer is broke which is why his business is falling apart.
Expensive car – gift – client – wife of client – actual criminal – secret. The car is a gift from his client – the wife of the man who was wrongfully convicted. The wife is the true criminal, and is sleeping with the lawyer who was a good friend of the couple’s before their affair. He knows her secret and is beginning to reconsider his actions.
Your turn: Choose a technique and answer the questions you asked about your items in Exercise 2.
This brings us to the end of Quark 1 – Conception. I hope you’ve found it useful and would love to hear all about your experiences working through the exercises. Why don’t you share an example of your own in the comments below?
There is nothing more exciting than seeing a story unfold on the page, and even more so when it gets published! After years working in the corporate world, I decided it was time to strike out and fulfil my dreams of writing full time.
On a daily basis, I’m inspired by people who chase their dreams (whether or not they’re related to writing), and this inspiration translates to my stories, workshops and writing groups.
Jozi Flash is a product of this inspiration.
Ten talented authors and one gifted artist joined forces to create an anthology of flash fiction stories that embody the multicultural melting pot that is South Africa.
1723: Constantine Bourgeois is a man of many secrets. Artisan by day, killer by night, he turns his victims into wax figures for his shop.
2045: Richard Baines works for the renowned Anthony Garfield Historical Museum. His mundane existence is a stark counterpoint to his fascination with serial killers and science fiction.
Constantine’s nightmares drive him to undertake a journey to uncover a long-forgotten secret. Richard’s research uncovers a company secret and the mystery of Madame Bourgeois.
Like art sketches, flash fiction stories are fleeting moments captured in a few hundred words.
In a world without men, the first boy child is welcomed as the saviour of his race; a cuckoo clock holds death and destruction in its beautifully carved figures; and a snowman holds a silent vigil of peace during war.
In this collection of 50 stories, illustrated with her artwork, the author delves into worlds of imagination and reality inspired by words and drawings.