Can dreams make for brilliant writing?

I read once that James Cameron came up with the idea for The Terminator from a dream he had*. Stephen King came up for the idea of his novel Misery while asleep on a trans-Atlantic flight.

I have had some weird dreams in my life, and last night’s was no exception. Actor Ethan Suplee was about five times his normal size and had turned into an incorrigible ne’er-do-well who was terrorizing people. At the end of the dream a frightened rabbit swam away from him.

Other dreams I’ve had I think now it is best to write the details down when you wake up and put them into a fiction ideas notebook. You never know what began as a strange dream stemming from spicy food or from a lack of sleep can turn into a best-selling novel.

* Apparently, sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison had that dream also: he later successfully sued Cameron, arguing that The Terminator plagiarized several of his own short stories.

Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Writing when you’re tired

This past week I did very little writing in the realm I really like: fiction, blogging, journaling, essays. It wasn’t due to the usual procrastination culprit but rather, no energy. Three days in a row I had far too much to do between my two jobs (the newspaper and the gas station) and did not have the energy. In that trio of days I averaged four, maybe five hours of sleep.

What is Richard like after three days in a row of five hours of sleep?

By Tuesday night, when I usually get home from work at 11:30 p.m., I briefly considered calling my wife earlier and asking her to get a ride to Frankenmuth to drive me home. Despite drinking a lot of 7-11 Double Gulps (I prefer to mix Coke with either Cherry Coke or Diet Coke–don’t ask), I felt very tired. It was almost like Army basic training again, where I almost fell asleep during my graduation ceremony.

So, for the next two days, I slept close to 10 hours each day to try to catch up. I also felt a little under the weather and was worried, due to some discomfort when I breathed, I briefly worried I was coming down again with a viral infection in my lungs like I did in 1999, during another fun period of my life where I was consistently getting little sleep. Viral lung infections feel as if when you take a deep breath, someone is stabbing you in the chest.

And regarding sleep, that brings up the point of this blog posting: how do you write when you’re tired? 

For me, creative energy gets stifled when I have not been sleeping, or when I’m worn down and feel like doing little more than chatting with friends on Facebook.

The solution? Nope, not cocaine. I’ve never used cocaine but based on accounts I’ve read from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and from one person I know, the white stuff creates far more problem than it solves. I suppose it is to not allow yourself to get tired. Budget your time. Get sufficient sleep. If that doesn’t work, consume caffeine or make lifestyle choices that will give you more energy. An encouraging spouse or a writing accountability partner probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Suggestions, anyone?

Richard Zowie is a writer–or at least he tries to be. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Trying out poetry

Maybe it’s just a phase I am going through, but I am really enjoying writing poetry. It’s never been my forte, as I prefer writing prose, but it has proven to be fun so far. As I continue to write, I may try to experiment with rhythm and rhyme. All in good time. So far, I have become adept at free verse, but soon it’ll be time to try something challenging.

My gosh, it is amazing to read Paradise Lost and marvel at the rhyme and rhythm!

While I post my poetry on my blog (some of it; much of it is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too personal), I have found I prefer to write longhand. Quentin Tarantino once said poetry could not be written on a computer, and I find writing poetry using a pen and paper brings me closer to the English language. Now, does this mean I will write a novel longhand, as Stephen King did with Dreamcatchers?

Um, no.

To this man, computer + poetry = blasphemy.

When I try to write prose longhand, I find my brain is often sentences and even paragraphs ahead of what I’m trying to write down.

One thing with poetry I wonder is when thoughts should be recorded in poem form and when they should be recorded in prose. Suggestions, anyone?

Richard Zowie is a writer who is getting in touch with his inner poet. He still loves story writing and is still working on short stories and novels. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Breaking through writer’s block as I work on my novel, ‘Randy and Rhonda’

For me as a writer, it is very frustrating to have writer’s block. You have a great idea, write scores of pages and then hit a slump where you don’t know what happens next.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, tells of having to take a hiatus from his epic novel The Stand because he had accidentally twisted together several plot lines and didn’t know what happened next.

I am working on several fictional works, and last night I wrote about 1,000 words on my novel Randy and Rhonda. Here is what I can say: it is a Christian love story that has some frank discussions about sex and how many Christians do not know what “True Christianity” is. As I have written about 30 pages, I hit a snag.

And as I thought, I realized I could write this novel the way so many movies are made: out of sequence.

James Cameron said in an interview that the opening scene in The Terminator was actually one of the last scenes he filmed. It’s been said that John Dugan, who played Grandpa in the 1974 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, disliked so much the process of wearing make-up to look like an old man that he requested both of his scenes be filmed back-to-back, even though they don’t take place until about halfway in the film and then towards the end. Though it reportedly took about 36 straight hours, his request was granted.

As I thought about this, I wondered, why not do the same thing in novel writing? 

So, last night I wrote several chapters ahead. I may also continue doing this as I try to work out my current snag. My plan is that as I piece later parts of the puzzle together, I will have a better idea how to write the current part where I am struggling.

We’ll see what happens.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

A short essay of being square regarding pop culture

I’ve never read a single book from the Harry Potter series. Part of it is because I’ve never been comfortable with the whole concept while, frankly, I’ve skimmed over a few books and have been bored. When it comes to fantasy, I like science fiction, The Twilight Zone-style “What if?” and alternate history. It all just seems too contrived to me. Token sidekick. Token bad guy, etc. When my wife and kids talk about Dumbledorf, Hogwarts, Gobbledygook and whatever the head teacher is at Harry’s school, it’s as if they’re speaking Finnish.

Speaking of “Twilight”, I’m also not a fan of the Twilight series. Probably for the same reasons above. Vampires have never really interested me: while I do like Stephen King, I’ve never even finished reading ’Salem’s Lot (a story where vampires invade a Maine town).

Up until a few months ago, I had no idea who Lady Gaga was. I wish I still had no idea who Lady GagGag was.

Whenever I open People, Us or some other weekly magazine that kisses up to celebrities, I am amazed to look through the pages and see celebrities I’ve never even heard of. Sometimes, it’s as if I’ve just woken up from a 10-year coma.

Up until 2006, I never knew rapper Eminem had a close friend named Proof. While many might lament Proof’s untimely death, I wonder how many realize had Proof not been killed in a shootout, he would have been charged with murder.

I watch very few “reality” shows, and that includes America’s Got Talent. I’m trying to understand Sharon Osbourne’s obsession with lip-synching drag queens or why Piers Morgan believes as Simon Cowell does–that you have to be a classless jerk to tell someone they don’t have talent (never mind many are misled onto the show unwittingly for entertainment purposes). And to think that Stephen King declined to post examples of abysmal prose submissions when he held his writing contest, stating he felt it was poor sportsmanship to shoot cripples.

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

How much do you read?

If there’s one dream I have as a writer, it’s being able to write full-time for a living. I’d love nothing more than to be able to write fiction, be a journalist, blog and write columns and essays full-time without the need for a second job.

Many successful writers, when asked the secret to their success of writing for a living, will tell you that any successful writer must do two things daily: read and write. Some writers will spend several hours churning out thousands of words of fiction, blogs, columns, essays, journals before settling down later in the day with some great books. And perhaps a few magazines.

I am envious of those who can maintain a heavy book-reading workload. Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes himself as a slow reader but somehow manages to read scores of books annually. Wow. It makes you wonder what he considers to be a fast reader. Maybe, perhaps he had in mind the older brother of one of my friends. Andy told a reporter once that his brother, Peter, could read about seven books per week.

Not per year or per month. Per week.

I am in awe and honestly wish I were like these people. One of my goals in life, both as a writer and as someone who wants to learn about the world, is to become someone who’s “well read”.

So far in the past year I’ve read four books that I can remember. One was a biography on Jim Morrison, another was Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing while two were novels by science fiction writer Ben Bova. I am currently finishing up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and plan next to read a collection of Bova’s short stories. After that, who knows? Whatever catches my fancy.

It is, of course, best to discipline yourself as a writer to read daily. By reading, you get an idea of what flows, what works and what doesn’t flow and what doesn’t work. Sometimes terrible prose can not only teach you how not to write, but it can also inspire you (“Hey, if this person can get published, so can I!”).

Perhaps this evening, when I get done blogging, I’ll do a little reading. Besides the two books I have checked out at the library, I have more than 100 books at home that I have yet to read.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Just this Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’

I’m not an expert in Byzantine-style of writing, but from what little I gather, it’s a very ornate style of writing. It sounds like a style very different from Ray Bradbury’s. Some have asked me how I’d describe Mr. Bradbury’s style, and, again, I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

That being said…

When I was younger and an even worse writer than I am now, I often would try to write fiction using strict outlines. I think it came from the times I’d occasionally get 15 minutes at church to preach miniature sermons. I’d take a story idea, outline it and then write according to the outline. Whenever possible, I’d employ alliteration.

Don’t misunderstand–there’s nothing wrong with writing by outlines. If you’re a very organized person, perhaps it’s the best way to go. In many ways (especially in my journalism and freelance writing careers) I still like to do that as a way to have a starting point that points towards a faint, distant, illuminated end of the tunnel. But there are many times when writing fiction where it’s sometimes best to go with the flow and write as the spirit moves you. Let your imagination guide you.

Mr. Bradbury notes that even at an early age his preferred style of writing was word asociation. Take a story, write down as many words that come to mind and then write the story based on the word list. Before this, he used to “beat, pummel and thrash” an idea into existence. He believes that word association allows you to write faster as the ideas flow much better.

To illustrate this, he explains the term “Dandelion Wine”, which he would use in a collection of his published short stories. Dandelions sprout in the spring (as they will very soon do here in Michigan), and each dandelion represents a fascinating story idea. As for the wine, oenophiles tell us that the best wine is properly aged. Take a story idea and allow it to age, breathe and build up color, aroma and flavor in a cask and then in a bottle and soon you have a story that people will pay good money to read.

That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon? (a young man commits suicide out of despair, gets to heaven and sees how God could’ve richly used him had he not ended his life on a lark); God’s Final Call (a young man raised in a Baptist church knows he’s not really saved and has a decision to make: become a Christian or ignore God one last time); Dear Billy, Sincerely, Billy (a time travel story involving bullies, new opportunities and receiving a letter from yourself in the not-so-near past). Perhaps these dandelions will someday soon turn into very fine wines.

Mr. Bradbury notes how some critics who, aware of his humble childhood and some of the perceived ugliness of that area of Illinois (such as the trains, boxcars and smell of coal) wonder how he could convey excitement about these. It’s all about perception, he reasons. A carnival or railyard deemed ugly by a dignified, stuffy Byzantine person is, to a Midwest boy who grew up in the 1930s a paradise.

To Bradbury, his humble surroundings were Byzantium: a wonderous, exotic, beautiful place very ornate and rich to him.

Finally, Mr. Bradbury talks about the pear-shaped, red, white and blue-striped paper balloons filled with hot air during 1925 Fourth of July. They floated and seemed to have a wonderful, mysterious life of their own. I wonder if these balloons were the inspiration for his short story The Fire Balloons (which can be found in his book The Illustrated Man).

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who blogs, works in journalism, writes fiction and essays. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Thoughts on the ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘The Joy of Writing’

Please keep in mind that this is not a critique of Mr. Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing. This blog posting is simply what I’ve gathered from the book and how I think I can apply it to my own fiction writing career. It’s also my motivation to finish this book and to move onto others.

I’ve often wondered how to best describe Bradbury as a writer to those unfamiliar with his work (my two favorite Bradbury books are The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451). Perhaps Stephen King said it best: with Mr. Bradbury, everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

“The Joy of Writing” chapter

Mr. Bradbury believes it’s imperative to write with zest and gusto. Writing should be pleasurable, so have fun with it. This type of mentality helps a person put out 2,000 or so words a day. If you find it a burden, then you may have a problem. The same rings true for other professions. To be a successful chef, Gordon Ramsay has said you must a passion for cooking. Actors have told me that getting in front of a camera or on stage requires a love for performing; if your motivation is fame or fortune, forget it.

What should a person write about? Things that you love or hate. One example Mr. Bradbury references is seeing a photo in Harper’s Bazaar that used Puerto Ricans in the background as “props”. Upset by this, Mr. Bradbury wrote a short story where a Puerto Rican man taunts such a photographer by always appearing in his photographs and making some type of gesture that ruins the picture. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King recounts working at a mill and hearing a crazy story about how giant rats lived in the cellar of a decrepit building. Wheels spun and soon King wrote the creepy short story Graveyard Shift.

Sometimes we write about our fears. One short story I’m working on focuses on one of my worst fears: having an automobile breakdown in the summer heat in the middle of nowhere. The main character is on the run from the police but has his car break down in one of the more rural areas of the country: West Texas.

Sometimes, Mr. Bradbury feels writing a story can be as simple as finding a character who wants or doesn’t want something with all their heart. Give them orders, let them go and follow them and write what you see happening. Darn the outlines and character profiles, full speed ahead!

Writing also requires a person to read voraciously and diversely. Books, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. Myself, I suspect much can be learned even by reading bad prose. You learn how not to write and what doesn’t work. For me, what comes to mind is one particular sci-fi novel written by a scientist who simply wasn’t a good writer. Another involves a curious delve into trasy western paperbacks where the methaphors are so bad they’re comical. Obviously, this is best kept at a minimum while energies should be focused on good writing and what does work.

Finally in this chapter, Mr. Bradbury reminds us that life is indeed very short. Write. A writer writes now. Procrastination is the death of writing. This is indeed something I can relate to: my twenties flew by and now, at 37, I’m beginning to wonder what happened to my thirties. If only we lived on a planet like Pluto, where the days are six days long instead of a measly 24 hours.

Up next, the chapter “Run Fast, Stand Still”.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer. He’s worked as a journalist and columnist and also blogs and writes fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Reading, reading, reading

I really should try to discipline myself to check out two books at a time from the library. Right now, I have these checked out: The Reagan Diaries, ’Salem’s Lot and Cell, both by Stephen King and Buy Jupiter and Other Stories and I, Robot, both by Isaac Asimov. Of all these, Cell is an audio book. So far, I’ve done reading on all these except for Mr. Asimov’s books. It’s more an issue of time rather than preference, since I actually love the science fiction genre.

I heard once of one amazing reader who could read seven books in a week. Zowie! I wish I had that ability. I remember from college English Literature that John Milton reached a point where he’d read everything there was to read in English. He then moved onto Latin and Greek.

This will never happen today, of course. Loads of new books are published every year. Each day, newspapers are published. Each week and month, magazines. And with the internet, there are now countless online sources. Sure you can read faster, but for me, the faster I try to read, the less I retain.

When I read, I try to keep in mind these things: what works, what doesn’t work, what’s been done and what hasn’t been done.

Richard works on fiction

I’ve gone through about 10 drafts so far of my Writer’s Digest 750-word short story about the woman who travels through time. As I write, I wonder what’s the best way to approach the assignment: write, edit to 750 words and then work with what you have to create a great story or write a nice story, polish it and then edit down to 750 words.

These assignments are indeed challenging. James Cameron, who directed sci-fi classic The Terminator, once said he was forced to cut scenes he was “in love with” in order to get the movie down to a desired length. I see the same rings true in short fiction.

But of course, short fiction can be a great exercise in whittling away needless words and creating a nice, tight story. I’ve read books before and have thought afterward that they were 50 pages too long. I remember a sci-fi novel, where the author goes on for about 20 pages about creatures flying through the Saturnian atmosphere when five would’ve been sufficient. And then there’s the whole space opera where one astronaut’s wife divorces him and shacks up with her divorce attorney while one female astronaut tries to bed just about every man on the ship.

You get the point.

So, as I work on this story, I remember the stern but helpful advice Stephen King gives in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: to write well, you must read a lot. I find myself reading Harry Turtledove and Ray Bradbury-style fantasy along with suspense, sci-fi and Christian-themed books since these are the types of fiction I would someday like to write.