Inspiration 101

So, as you can see, I’ve been . . . how do you say it . . . M.I.A. for a few weeks. Yeah, sue me. No, really though, I’ve been meaning to write, but these past few weeks have been trying my nerves. Deciding to study in Rome was a huge decision and I wasn’t quite sure of it even at the moment I arrived (lack of sleep and sweltering heat might have helped with that). So, let’s just say that most of the energy I would have used for writing was being guzzled up by anxiety, terror, excitement, and various other emotions all bundled up into a little exploding ball of crazy.

Phew. So, that’s why the writing has been lacking. It’s hard to feel inspired when you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But, now that I’m in Rome, happy about it, and feeling much calmer, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite ways to get inspired and beat the evil beastie known as Writer’s Block.

  1. Listen to Music: By know, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, duh, I could have told you that.” But we’re not just talking any music here. The chicken dance is probably not going to inspire the next great novel. When you’re blocked, you need music that awakens strong emotions, because you can draw on these to write. So pick songs that make you feel electrically sad or happy or even scared. Pick songs that tell stories and think how they would translate into prose. Pick songs from your favorite movie soundtracks that have you thinking of plot. Then, listen to them and brainstorm. Just write down everything you think or feel. Something will catch.
  2. Take a Walk: Proven fact: exercise is good for your brain. All those endorphins will have you feeling happy and cut through any frustration clouding your brain. Plus, the scenery and sights you stumble upon along the way can spark great stories. Even something small may inspire you. So, pick a route that is scenic and interesting and just go wander for a while. Look carefully at what you pass. Look at people and what they’re doing and ask yourself, who are there? Where are they going? What are their life stories? Bring a pen with you in case you get a great idea!
  3. Look at a Plot: Pick one of your favorite books. Now, grab Wikipedia and your brain and go through the plot, looking at key events and turning points. Pick a major turning point and think to yourself, what would happen if this turning point happened in another way? What if Frodo and Sam never met Gollum? What if the poison Romeo bought was fake? Or look at characters. What if Harry Potter was more like Draco Malfoy, but with the same prophecy? What if Macbeth was a stupid brute? Looking at someo of these “What ifs” can inspire new story ideas.
  4. Write ahead: Already working on a story or novel? Let me guess. You hit a scene that’s just sort of filler or that you haven’t planned out and you have no interest in writing it, or you have no inspiration how. You want to work on the scene where the guy finally kisses the girl, or where the team of random adventurers encounters the nefarious villain, not your sultry heroine having a tough and plot-relevant day at the office or the adventurers getting stuck, yet again, in a bit of trouble. So, do it! Write the fun scenes! Sometimes, what you need to do to spike your interest in the rest of your plot is to get back into the story. Work on a scene that does inspire you, and then your creative powers will be activate and you can channel them into that tricky scene.
  5. Just write!: Nothing works? Still blocked? Then stop trying to pen perfect prose and just write. Something. Anything. Find a random writing prompt and write it out. Go to the last bit of your story and continue it. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. It will probably be clunky, repetitive, and rough. That’s okay. You can edit later. But if you just muscle through it now, it will get your brain thinking about writing and, eventually, you’ll hit your stride and the words will come easily.

Well, writers, there’s your plan. Now go and write! (Says the hypocrite, I know, I know. But don’t you follow my bad habits. (: )

Underrated Movies: Part 1

Some movies hit the top of the blockbuster list instantly because they’re just that great. Others catch a few nods from the critics but amass huge cult followings. Then there are those underappreciated gems that, while being entertaining and well-written, are side-lined while such shameful offerings as Mall Cop rake in mindless viewers. (Yes, believe it. Mall Cop was the longest running movie at my local theater. It makes me cry inside too.) So, here are a few movies I’ve come across that deserve more than just a passing glance in the five dollar video rack.

In no particular order:

1. Hostage – Police negotiator Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) thinks he’s talking three juvenile delinquents out of holding two suburban kids for ransom. The delinquents think they have an easy payday from the kids’ wealthy father. But when the source of daddy’s illegal funds gets involved, Talley finds himself dealing with two hostage situations: the wealthy swindler’s family, and his own. Fast-paced, with a strong script and sympathetic characters, it will keep you guessing.

2. The Butterfly Effect – Ashton Kutcher never struck me as the dramatic type, but his role in this sci-fi thriller is poignant, believable, and compelling. It opens on Evan, a troubled mental patient who has spent his life repressing his most painful memories. When he finds a way to access and relive these lost scenes, he thinks he has the key to saving himself and the girl he can’t forget–but with every change he makes, the future alters in ways he could never forsee. Dark, eerie, and cleverly put together, with an ending even Hollywood can’t sugarcoat.

3. Garden State – Romantic comedy meets indie meets drama. After ten years of absence, Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff) returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Desperate for meaning, he takes a break from the numbing pills forced on him by his father and finds real life experiences in his oddball old friends and a quirky, equally troubled girl named Sam (Natalie Portman). The plot builds slowly, but the characters are unique and lifelike players in a story balanced by touching drama and understated humor.

4. Labyrinth – What do glam rock, Jim Hensen, and leather pants have in common? This bizarre fantasy musical featuring Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and a supporting cast of cute and creepy muppets. When Sarah accidentally sends her crying baby brother to the clutches of the Goblin King, she has 13 hours to find him in the center of an impossible maze before the King turns him into a goblin. But don’t be fooled; this is no children’s movie. Sarah’s search is fraught with sinister enemies and suspicious allies in a place where even the walls are determined to trap her forever.

5. Anastasia – In an age of helpless Disney princesses with superficial love affairs, Don Bluth offered a compelling and fantastical answer to the mysterious disappearance of a real-life royal. Dimitri (John Cusack) is a con-artist with a get-rich-quick scheme–return the lost Grand Duchess to her surviving family for a pretty reward. Anastasia (Meg Ryan) is a spunky, self-reliant tomboy with a striking resemblance to the missing girl. When Dimitri meets her and convinces her that she must be the real Anastasia, neither of them know that she really is the lost Duchess, or that the dastardly fiend who killed her family is back to eliminate her. An updated fairytale with a competent heroine, a realistic romance, and songs that will be stuck in your head for months.

Happy viewing! And soon, Part 2.

Coraline: Movie Review

When I was just a little girl, full of childhood whimsy, one of my favorite, favorite movies was The Nightmare Before Christmas. Maybe I was a morbid little kid, but there was something about those eerily stylized characters, the haunting melodies, and the fancifully sinister plot that made me watch it over and over. Jack and Sally were my Romeo and Juliet. Halloween Town was my Oz. So, naturally my first peek of the Coraline trailer dredged up all that comfortable nostalgia. Wrapped like a burrito in my comforter, I pressed play on the TV and prepared to be delighted.

I was immediately struck by the familiar artistic style, those odd-shaped claymation-style characters with their spindly limbs and soulful eyes–not to mention the meticulous detail put into the scenery, sweet and sinister, a Gorey Wonderland. As the first scenes of the movie played out, with Coraline’s introduction and venture into her new house, my heart fluttered a few worried beats. The characters were typical Henry Selick, off-the-wall and eerily endearing, but the plot in the first twenty minutes or slow was slow to develop.

Once it did, Coraline delivered all it promised. With a manipulative and beautifully ridiculous villain, carefully placed foreshadowing, and a mix of suspense, self-realization, and the touch of morbid flair that makes Selick so remarkable, it offered a plot both accessible to children and intricate enough for adults. Some of the punchy jokes and racier scenes would probably scare off most parents and the macabre mood and nightmarish animation might traumatize some sensitive children, but I know that the five-year-old me would have worn out the DVD (VHS, then!). While Nightmare will always own my black little heart, Coraline has definitely earned a place on my shelf.

Bizarre Writing Prompts

Let’s put it this way.  I’m sick of writing prompts that go along the lines of “Write a diary for your main character” or “He never realized she would come after him” or “Write a story that uses the words paper, copy machine, and lawyer.”  Seriously, people?  We’re writers.  Is that the best we can come up with?  All those cute prompts are fine if you’re blocked beyond hope, but if you’re like me, you take one look, think “Hm, that’s mildly interesting,” and twitch a little bit while your brain turns to mush.  Forget outside of the box.  I want outside the planet.  So, I scoured the web for something more unusual. Here are a few sites to stretch your brain.

1. Writing Companion // Rating: 3/5
This site is pretty hit or miss. Some of the prompts are pretty interesting, and others are just so-so. If you really need to get writing, however, they have good ideas for ways to pull great ideas from mundane sources. Type “Writing Prompt” into the search box and see if anything strikes you.

Sample Prompt: Collect random sentences from magazines, newspaper articles, stories, etc. Unify them into one story.

2. Story Spinner // Rating: 3/5
Click the wheel and you’ll get a setting, an opening line, and four words that you have to include. A little commonplace sometimes, but it’s a good way to get something started if you’re stuck, and some of the combinations are so ridiculous that you can’t fail to laugh . . . and then write all about it.

Sample Prompt: Setting for your story: During intermission / Starting phrase for your story: I remember spitting / Four words you must include in your story: Yard, Mush, Diagram, Drip

3. Easy Street Prompts // Rating: 4/5
A great list of hundreds of minimalist prompts. Some are short, evocative phrases and others are bizarre pictures (you know what they say about pictures and words) and videos. With the creepy black background that already has me thinking surreal, it’s a great place to find something that will spark an instant story in your head.

Sample Prompt: Phrase: fashionably excommunicated. Picture: a blurred out house about to be wrecking-balled.

4. Director’s Bureau // Rating: 4/5
The ultimate minimalist. The whole site is a javascript generator: three dials with random words. Click the button and the dials will spin around to give you a three-word phrase. Most of the combinations are pretty bizarre and can bring up some vivid mental images, but others fit together too well. Thankfully, generating new combos takes all of three seconds (as your time-wasting blogger knows all too well).

Sample Prompts: Do-it-yourself torture game; Inexpensive nuclear garden; Secret foam art

5. Leucrota Press // Rating: 5/5
The blog itself is a great resource for all things writing, and this short list of prompts has some of the most unusual I’ve ever seen. Though they may make you cringe, squirm, or say “What the hell?”, they’ll definitely test your imagination. But with a title like ‘Disturbing Writing Prompts,’ what would you expect?

Sample Prompt: You’re falling asleep at your desk when your nose starts itching. You sneeze, and an earthworm slips out.

6. McSweeney’s // Rating: 5/5
A little tamer than Leucrota, so you’re not as likely to screech or gag, but just as interesting. This short list ranges from the very unusual to the very tricky, forcing you to envision bizarre situations or to write about a scene without mentioning its key components.

Sample Prompt: A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

Inspired yet? Then do what I’m supposed to be doing and go write!

P.S. Have another addition to this list? Post it here or shoot me a note. Cheers!

Publishing a Novel in 2009

A few weeks ago, I strolled into the Young Adult section of my local Borders bookseller, curious to find the ends to a few favorite series and a new book or two.  I unknowingly waltzed into a kiosk full of Twilight conversation hearts, bookmarks, and umbrellas.  This kiosk flanked two long shelves stocked only with the Twilight saga.  Intrigued, I took a spin around the nearby shelves.  Vampires.  Vampires.  And, you guessed it, more vampires. 

As an aspiring author, I thought, by gum! this could be the key to selling that first novel.  But others needed to know this information too.  So, after a few hours of perusal, I compiled this penetrating guide into the 2009 book market.  Fear not, writers!  Just follow these agonizingly easy steps and you will soon be smothered by a mob of girls throwing wads of cash at you in exchange for the fruits of your pen. 

1.  Write a vampire romance.  Yes, you guessed it.  With Stephenie Meyer taking an indefinite break from Midnight Sun, the next installment in the Twilight saga, vampire fan girls must unearth their seductive night-bound heroes in other places.  Fortunately for the fang-frenzied, one stop in the Young Adult section of a major bookseller will satisfy their cravings.  With Meyer’s saga raking in millions in print, film, and merchandise, dozens of new vampire romances have squeezed their way onto shelves. 

2.  Create your characters.  So, now that you have your genre, you need a leading lad and lady.  They must be or at least look like teenagers.  The girl can vary.  She is just a placeholder for the female reader to fill.  Make her a vampire or a strong-willed human, as long as she can fulfill the fantasy.  Your hero, however, should be darkly handsome, with chiseled features described in minute detail and eyes for your reader to drown in.  Add an aloof personality, a tortured past, and inner turmoil, and you will have every reader writing Mrs. Vampire on her notebooks.  Do not dwell on names.  Pick something mysterious, unusual, or mystical sounding.  Cassandra?  Yes.  Jennifer?  Not so much. 

3.  Craft a plot.  The plotline can vary widely, as long as you stick to a few key elements.  First of all, you need to introduce your vampire!  Either your hero or heroine should be a new student, or maybe your hero is a familiar student with a mysterious reputation.  They can traipse on whatever adventures you like as long as you include a healthy dose of loving gazes, passionate proclamations, and sizzling make-out scenes. 

4.  Pick a title.  This will hook your reader and alert them to your genre, so choose wisely for both your book and series (of course you will be writing more than one!).  You can pick something punny (Frostbite), sexual (Untamed, Shadow Kiss), cryptic (Hunted, Marked, Wicked, Huntress), dark (Night World, City of Night), or blatant (Vampire Academy, Royal Blood, Vampire Kisses), as long as it clearly reads vampire! 

5.  Design a cover.  You may not need this until later, but keep it in mind.  Either a half-naked guy and girl half turned from the viewer or a cryptic, Egyptian or Celtic object or symbol will do, as long as the style is black and Victorian. 

6.  Sell!  Yes, it is easy as that.  Send off your completed manuscript and wait for the critical acclaim to roll in. 

So, aspiring authors, you have the tools you need.  Good luck on your enterprise!  May the powers of the vampires inspire you. 

Disclaimer:  This article is not intended to be a factual or comprehensive to the real publishing market, nor is it intended to derogate the works mentioned.  It is an overgeneralization intended for the purposes of humor only.