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Wednesday, February 26, 2014


It is one of the most essential and iterative tools of writing, but in my experience brainstorming is often ignored or rushed through.  I thought that today I would offer up my own advice on how I brainstorm, and that might help out someone, somewhere.

Brainstorming is simply getting ideas out, usually onto paper.  Often it is done in groups, but can be performed on an individual basis.  There really is no "right way" to do it, but there are plenty of wrong ways.  I remember being taught some basic techniques for it when in Jr. High.  Sadly, those are the same techniques I was taught as a senior in college.  This means that they either work really well or they are the only techniques people can think of.  The popular methods for brainstorming, referred to as Osborn's Method, keep two things in mind: write a lot and don't judge it.  The more ideas you put down on paper, the better the chance of one of them not being crap.  If you've had any writing classes, you're probably familiar with the bubbles technique, where you start with one idea and circle it.  Then you put related ideas around it and circle them, then connect with lines.  You keep doing this, making a bubble map of related ideas.  I've never liked doing this.  A more effective method, I believe, is simply to write things down in a list.

The method I like best, however, is to come up with potential plot lines or link two ideas together.  Of course, this only works for stories, so it may not work for you.  I start off with an idea, a hook.  Then I ask one of two questions: "What happens next?" or "How did it get to this point?"  If I'm linking two ideas, then I ask, which one starts and how do I get to the other?"  I come up with all the possibilities.  If, for instance, I start with the idea of a boy who never needs to sleep, I might ask "why not?  Was he born this way, or did something happen to him?"  I'll weigh the possibilities... if he was born that way, he would never know what dreaming is like, would probably have been a terror on his parents, and would find himself with a lot of extra time for things like reading or getting into trouble.  If something happened to him, it could be self-inflicted or external, it could have been a traumatic experience.  I decide that, after delving into the "something happened" scenario a little deeper, I prefer to have him born without needing to sleep.  Next I would ask, "What happens now?"  Well, he may be curious.  He might want to learn what sleep is like.  Or maybe he is glad he doesn't have to sleep and leads a double life at night.  Maybe his parents don't know he doesn't sleep, so he can sneak out at night or stay up all night reading.  I continue like this until I have a semblance of a plot line.  I might even go back and decide that I prefer to have him not born that way, because then he might really fight to get his sleep back.  Then I try to think of the other people, the other situations, and how they might interact with his plot line.  What if he doesn't need sleep because of a virus that restores his body all the time?  What would the doctors think if they found out.  One of them might decide this would be a great way to make money...

Often I have to bounce ideas off of someone, but I don't usually have that option, so as a back-up, I let them linger.  Procrastination, to a writer, is actually your friend.  Go relax.  Get your mind off the story.  Play a game, listen to some music, do some sewing, watch a movie, go play with your cat.  Then come back to it, but always come back to it.  Don't procrastinate too long, or you'll lose the progress you made.  Sometimes inspiration will strike from the simplest thing, like watching your trash collector slip on ice, or wondering what possessed someone to write Catnapped!  No, really, what were they on?  Bring that inspiration with you when you get back to writing.  And give yourself a good 2 hours to brainstorm.  It takes about that long for your mind to really get into the creative groove.  To help, tell someone else a joke, then start.  Telling a joke helps get your mind into a creative mode.

Well, there you have it.  I like to come up with possibilities and eliminate them based on their potential (or lack thereof).  I tend to ask myself a lot of questions to make sure I cover every point.  But I always write down the ideas.  That way I can go back to one I've eliminated and make it viable again.  I also keep a notebook around to write ideas down in.  If I'm near my computer, I put it into a file instead.  Then, if I need to come up with an idea, I can browse through those I've already thought of.  I usually find something that'll work.  Whatever works for you is perfectly acceptable.

I may not have a short story for you all this week.  I apologize for that.  I'm working on a short story for a contest that is due on Friday, and it's taking up more time than I thought it would.  We'll see.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Haptic Malware

Jillian was not what Terry had expected.  She seemed so boring in classes, so disinterested in anything Terry liked to do, that he usually paid her no mind.  But when she asked him to walk her back to the dorms, everything changed.

"Wait, you know about Dragon Con?" he asked her as they strolled along the darkening pathways that meandered through the quad.

"Of course I do.  I go every year. this year I'm going as a Brown Coat!"  There was more than a hint of pride in her voice.

A girl who likes Firefly?  This has got to be a setup, Terry thought to himself and looked around  briefly to see if there were any lurkers or hidden cameras.  He found none.  When he looked back at her, a picture of a cop appeared in his vision, blocking her out. 

"New South Carolina state law means you might be paying too much for car insurance.  Want to learn more?  Yes.  No."  Terry winced and tapped the small metal disc placed on his temple.  Ever since he installed wireless service to the Haptic Network, he had started seeing these little pop-ups in his vision.  Brain-to-brain connection had its downside.

"No." he said, and the screen vanished.

"No?" asked Jillian. "Oh.  Is there someone else you want to go with?"

Terry Fuller flushed with guilt.  "What?  I'm sorry, I didn't hear the full question."

Jillian looked at him funny.  "Are you alright?  I asked if you wanted to go with me.  It's next month."

"Of course!" Terry answered.  "I usually meet up with some online friends there, but they tend to ditch me once the forums get interesting."

"Good!" Jillian giggled and brushed her bangs out of her face.  He loved watching her like that as the sun went down behind the-

Suddenly Terry heard a news program start up from nowhere.  In the corner of his vision he could just make out the small video that had begun to play.

"Close." he commanded.  The video shut off.

"Hmm?" Jillian asked.

"What?  Oh, um… which dorm is yours?  Are we close?"  He thought that was a rather clever recovery.  She probably wouldn't like him if she found out he had somehow acquired malware.  She'd like him even less if she knew which site he got it from.

"Yeah, mine is Henry Hall," she said and pointed to a nearby dormitory.  They continued for some time in silence, with the occasional glance from one to the other as their only conversation.  When they finally made it to the entry of Henry Hall, Jillian stopped in front of it.

"Terry, I'm always nervous around guys, but I feel I can relax with you" she said.  "I really like you, and I…"

"This mother lost 52 pounds following one simple trick!"
"Say 'yes' now for a free* shipment of acai berries, the next big health craze."
"Want to find an adult friend now?  Yes or no."

The pop-up ads were getting worse.  Terry was finding it hard to concentrate on what Jillian was saying.  He reached up and tapped on the implant to try to turn it off, but there was no change.

"I'm sorry, what?" he asked.  "I got distracted for a minute.  I don't know where my mind went."  Two of the windows closed and he could once again see Jillian's face.  She was blushing and looking around nervously.

"I said, 'Do you want to come up?'"  Her voice was hardly more than a whisper.

"Yes," Terry said, but just before the word left his lips, another pop-up filled his vision.

"Have poor credit?  No worries!  Just say 'yes' to apply for our new credit card with 0% APR*"  As the screen vanished Terry picked up on some key words, things like, "52% interest," "$500 fee," and "medical experimentation."

"What?  No, cancel!" Terry said quickly and looked away from Jillian.

"Cancel?  What's wrong?  Terry, are you sick?"

He looked up at her full of worry and stress.  "What?  No, not cancel you, I mean, I want to go up with you.  I'm just having problems with my… wireless connection."

"Your wireless connection?" Jillian asked, raising an eyebrow.

At this point, the pop-ups were out of control.  Ever second, another would fill part of Terry's vision.  He gripped his hair with both hands.  "I can't… aaagh!!" he screamed and ran away, as if that would distance him from the ads.

Jillian just stood there, watching him go. "Darn, lost another one.  Maybe I'm too forward.  Well, I guess I can try that dating site again."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Burke and Hare

I am not a writer.  A writer puts words down on paper.  As one professor of mine put it, "A writer writes."  That's really all it takes to be a "writer."  No, I am not just a writer.  I'm an engineer.  A story engineer.

When engineering a story, I tend to do my fair share of research.  In today's world, it is all too easy to just go to wikipedia or google and claim you've done the research, and sometimes that works.  But it usually takes more.  Wikipedia is a great source to find viable sources.  It can give you the gist, but little else.  And details, those are the things that a story craves.  Those details may never make it to the final work, but the very fact that you, the writer, know those details will change the feel of your piece.  

In 2006 or 2007 I was doing research for a short story.  It involves a pair of British serial killers, Burke and Hare.  At the time, there was precious little information about them that was easy to find online, and the more I delved into the piece, the more specific the information I needed.  In the end, I somehow tapped into historical records that had been scanned in by hand.  Talk about primary sources!  Later, I revamped the story and was unable to find some of the same sources, but new ones had emerged.

Tonight I am rewriting the story once again in preparation for a contest.  Now when I check Wikipedia, I am bombarded with information about Burke and Hare, Dr. Joseph Bell, the history of hospitals and medical universities in England in the 1830s...  It seems there has been an intense interest in the subject since 2007.

Turns out, there has been.  Now there was a movie made about them back in the 1970s, but it wasn't very popular.  A few minutes ago, while searching Netflix for something to put on in the background while I work, I discovered a new movie, Burke and Hare (2010).  This time they turned it into an all-star black comedy.  Although it has not been highly rated, I am intrigued.  This would indeed be enough to create a resurgence in interest of the two killers.  What did they do right?  What did they do wrong?  I think, however, that I will wait until I am finished rewriting my story before watching it.  The last thing I need is to be influenced by someone else's vision.  My own vision doesn't have room for it.

If you're at all interested in Burke and Hare, or serial killers in general, I highly recommend doing some research into them yourself.  It is fascinating to think of how long they got away with their dirty work and who was willing to turn a blind eye.  It is feasible to set their story in modern times, I think, to illustrate just how little we have come.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Haptic Dating Network

Terry Fuller leaned back in his ergonomic chair as he placed the computer's cord to his temple.  It easily pushed into the jack that had been surgically implanted there.  Moments later, the internet beamed into his brain, leaving his overweight body in a completely relaxed state.

Within moments, he was standing before a digital mirror inspecting himself, making certain his avatar was perfect.  Lose the love handles.  Perfect.  He could always claim he had recently gained the weight if anyone find out.  Clear up that acne.  Gone.  If he ever got to meet a girl, he could use something to cover it up anyway, right?  Oh, and some muscles.  Those would be good.

He grinned as he checked himself out.  The new Terry Fuller was strong, handsome, athletic, and had never so much as seen a video game or played chess.  He was ready.  Terry entered the wide world of the Internet and headed straight for a door marked, "Haptic Dating Network."  The moment he touched it, his mind was flooded with information.

"Hi, I'm Jennifer.  I like strolls on the beach, hiking, riding my bike, and reading.  I'm a cat-lover…"

"This girl is out for some hot action.  Mary loves to party and lives to dance.  The only thing she loves more is…"

"If u want a bigger p3N15, gurlz can't resist our…"

He'd seen the profiles all before.  Maybe not the exact ones, but they were all the same.  For a moment, Terry wondered why the streets weren't filled with attractive people riding their bikes and hiking to parties all the time.  And he wondered who actually fell for the herbal supplement ads.  He scrolled the list in his mind faster, only looking at the first few words until one of them caught his attention.

"My name is Tanya.  I'm a gamer."

Terry stopped and scrolled back to the entry.  "A gamer?" he asked himself, his voice the only living noise in the dark room where he reclined.  "Pic?" he asked.  In a flash, there was a picture of an average girl.  She wasn't overly attractive, but she was still very pretty.  Somehow, that made Terry like her even more.

"This one," he said.  The list faded from his view and he waited in blackness, feeling his heart beat wildly in his chest.  Would she accept his invitation?  He'd heard of some of the strange things that happened to people on haptic connections like this one.  When your brain is connected, you're left rather vulnerable.  Was this a mistake?  Was it worth becoming a vegetable for a blind date?

Before he could second guess himself further, electrons flowed into his mind once more and he was standing in a waiting room with a couch, a TV, and some blankets folded in a corner.  Standing in front of him was a girl in her low 20s with long hair the color of caramel and a shy smile.  She wore Pink Floyd shirt, a skirt, and a pair of glasses.  Terry stared.

"Hey.  Is everything alright?  Have you loaded or did your network drop?" she asked, looking a little nervous at him.

"What?  Oh, no, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare.  I've jus never met anyone like you online before.  Hi."  Terry waved awkwardly, then sat down on the couch, patting the place next to him in invitation.

Tanya looked relieved and sat down beside him.  "Oh good.  Ever since I joined, people I talk to keep losing their connection," she said.  "So, how am I different from the others?"  She ran a hand through her hair as she turned to face him.

"Well.. you're… not perfect.  I mean, you're genuine.  No one on here is genuine.  We all make ourselves out to be ideal."

The girl giggled.  "'We?'  So that means you're not being honest with me?" she asked him, her hand on his knee.

Terry bit his tongue as he looked into her inquisitive, incredible gaze.  "All right," he said, and disappeared from the room.  He returned a few seconds later, his avatar no longer athletic, but with every flaw he himself possessed.  "What do you think?" he asked her.

She smiled.  "Much better.  You look like a gamer.  Am I right?"

"How did you know?"

"Oh, I know my peeps.  So what do you play?  StarBattle 4D?  Battlefront Tactics?"

Terry shrugged, feeling even more nervous than before.  "Oh, a little bit of everything," he said.  Her hand had moved from his knee onto his leg.  She was starting to look at him with a playful smile.

"Oh, Terry?  That is your real name, right?"  He nodded.  "Do you like any… other games?"  Her fingers walked up his chest and soon she slipped one leg over his.

"I… I don't know.  What did you have in mind?" Terry asked.

"Just some harmless fun.  It's all safe here online, isn't it?"  She winked at him and slid into his lap.

"Y-yeah…" he said, daring to put his hands on her hips.

"Well, me and my girlfriends have a site up.  We'd love it if you would visit.  I'll give you your own private show, too.  You are older than-"

Terry pulled the plug from his temple and jerked himself into a sitting position in his dark room.  He was panting and had to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow.  "Damn those chat bots.  They're getting way too smart."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Throne of Games

"A tie?  I never tie!  Count them again!"  The group of twenty-somethings watched as Reginald pushed the small colored blocks of wood around the table with his finger while mouthing words to himself.  "10 for wood… plus 7… do you have any green cards, Kate?" he asked the girl sitting across from him.

"No," she replied and continued to count up her points.

"Hey, you can't afford that Library; you don’t have the resources!" Reginald complained.

"Hey, chill out!  I get one free wood at the beginning of each turn, remember?" Kate said.  She pushed Reginald's hand away from her.  "I've got… 127."

"127," Reginald repeated in exasperation.  He pushed his thick-rimmed glasses up on his nose as he examined the game pieces, as if he could squeeze one more point out of them if he interrogated them long enough.

"Well, I guess that's that," Kate said with a grin as the four of them started packing the game into its box.

"Good game, Kate."  It was her boyfriend, Sean.  He had introduced her to his gaming friends a month before.  Now he was finding that she was a fast learner. "I almost had you that time, but I kept drawing such crap cards."

"I demand a rematch!"  Reginald stood up from the table and pointed a stubby finger at her.

Kate was taken by surprise for a moment, then stood up and smirked.  "You're on, Reg!  Any game, any time."

Reginald beamed with pride and pointed to the TV. "Right here, right now.  Virtual Combat 6."

"Really, Reg?  You own the game, it's not really fair…" Ismail had been with the group for years and had never seen Reginald lose a Virtual Combat match.

"Hey, she set the terms!"

Kate nodded.  "Alright, you're on.  Let's do this."  Her face was set with determination.  "Just promise me you won't cry when a girl beats you," she added and stuck out her tongue to tease him.

In moments, the game was set.  The two players stood in front of the TV, controllers in hand, eyes fixed on the screen.  It was a standard fighting game; first one to two victories wins the match.  As they selected their characters, Reg nudged her.

"Oh, you're going to pick Samurai Toshikawa?  I'm not surprised.  Everyone picks him.  He's easy."  Kate didn't dignify him with a response.

The screen changed to a wooded scene with their two figures facing each other.  The voice-over said, "Combat!" and it began.  The two players were focused as Ismail and Sean cheered them on from the couch.

"May the best gamer win."  Kate said.

"There is no word in Dothraki for defeat!" Reginald countered.  The fight began to the sounds of kiyaps, swords, and heavy metal music.  It wasn't long before Reginald started talking smack.  "I bet you didn't know I could do this."  His character, a tall, anime-style vampire, flew across the screen and attached itself to the samurai.  Moments later, the fight was over.  Reginald's vampire stood triumphantly over his fallen foe.

"I do now," Kate said with a sneer.  "It's not over yet, four-eyes."  The second round began.  Reginald and Kate moved and swayed as they mashed buttons.  Kate's samurai managed to evade the vampire's second lunge, then struck him in the back with a sword.  The fight ended as quickly as the first.  This time, though, Kate was doing the victory dance.

Reginald sneered and gripped his controller more tightly.  "I'll show you…" he said.  The third, and final, battle began.  It was brutal.  Every time one of them had the advantage, the other would counter.  The fighter's health bars drained away at the same rate with no clear winner in sight.  Reginald was nervously sweating.  Suddenly he swayed to the left and hit the table their last game was still set up on.  It skidded across the linoleum floor, causing a shower of tiny game pieces and custom cards to fall around the kitchen.

"Reg!" Sean said.  "That game's expensive!"  He got up to find all the pieces before they fell into a vent or under the couch.  Ismail went to join him.  In all the commotion, Kate was distracted.

"FATALITY!" the game announced.  Reginald yelled in delight.  "Yes!  Suck it, you dumb whore!  I win!  I'm still the best!  No girl could ever beat me!"

Kate was frozen with revulsion.  "What did you say?"

Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Reginald.  He stopped bouncing in place.  "What?" he asked.  He got no answer.  Sean and Ismail picked up the last of the pieces they could find and stuffed them in the box haphazardly.  The game's lid didn't even fit on when they were done.

"Come on, let's go somewhere else," Sean said as Kate stormed out of the apartment.  Ismail nodded.  It finally dawned on Reginald what had happened.

"W-wait!  I was kidding!  It's all in good fun, right?  Don't go!  We've still got lots of time.  I've got dessert…"  No matter how he pleaded with them, he could do nothing to deter them.  They walked out and left him behind.  "Fine!  I don't need you losers, anyway!  I'm still the best!" Reginald shouted out the door.  He slammed the door shut and walked back to the video game.  "Don't need them, anyway.  I'm better than they are."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Contests everywhere

I recently learned about a contest, as I'm sure you're quite aware if you follow my blog.  If not, please do!  It was the Splickety Magazine contest for micro-flashfiction.  I may have mentioned another contest of theirs, which is due on the 7th of this month.  After I entered that first contest, I learned about another from Reader's Digest - life stories in 100 words or fewer.  I also learned that the Chicago Tribune has a yearly short story contest due at the end of January.  I did not make it into that one in time.

I'm seeing more and more of them around.  So, I thought I would share a few of my findings.

Now, there are some that have fees associated, and I would only enter those sparingly.  Writer's Digest had one that had a $50 fee and then gave the grand prize to a previously published work - something that was against the rules.  They did eventually remedy it.  Needless to say, I will not be participating in that contest again.  I feel that if they are asking THAT much money of me, they would actually do their homework.  Some contests DO allow for previously published works.  Some retain the rights to your work for a year, others for an indefinite amount of time.  Still others retain the right to publish your work after the contest, even if it did not win.  If that is the case, you could get in trouble for publishing it elsewhere.  You need to be aware of the different kinds of rights you have and are giving them, such as "first publication," "digital," and "exclusive."  A good place to start is here.  Too often, aspiring writers and poets get scammed out of money or rights, but all the information was in the fine print, meaning there's nothing they can do about it.  So it is mandatory that you become fluent in legalese and read the terms before entering any literary contest, the same as before you get published.  For all you know, you could be allowed unlimited entries into the contest, and here you are limiting yourself to one!

The Writing Site keeps a list of contests you can enter.  The individual contests have different requirements, so be sure to look at them before entering.

Winning Writers is an award-winning website for writers.  Who knew?  They keep a list of fee-free contests updated if you subscribe.  Some are even for poems!  The link to do so is here:

They ALSO keep a list of contests to avoid, AND give some reasons why to avoid them.  I'm sorry to say, but many poetry contests are scams.  (I would, for instance, never send anything to poetry.com).

Finally, there is a good database of not-necessarily-free contests, grants, and awards here:

Finding more just takes a little electronic leg work.  Have fun entering a few.  If you don't win, don't fret!  You wrote something! You met a deadline!  You're a writer!  If the terms allow you, you can send that piece off later after some revisions, or publish it yourself.  The important thing is that you keep trying.