The Impossible (and the Possible) Quest

I’ll never forget him.  His name was John.  I really didn’t know him all that well, but he was a fellow English major back when I went to college, and he shared several of the same classes with me.  John was passionate about writing, creating, coming up with something new.

“That’s what I want, more than anything,” he said to me one crisp fall day as we exited our class on Victorian literature.  It was the kind of clean, fresh, fragrant western New York October afternoon that makes your eyes water, the air is so pure.   “To come up with something different, something no one’s ever written before.  Some completely new idea!”

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I shrugged, smiled.  He had expressed this to me (and anyone who would listen) before.  I had never really responded, though–until now . . .

“You know,” I said.  “I think, maybe, you’re not looking at this in quite the right way.”  Not the best choice of words, perhaps, but I just felt he needed to hear me out.

And he did . . .

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I can relate to John’s quest.  I think any writer can.  Anyone who has ever created anything, written anything, painted anything, anyone who’s penned the lyrics of a song or the musical notes of a ballad, anyone who has ever dreamed of reaching up into the sky on a lazy summer day and grabbing hold of a billowy, passing cloud just to experience the exhilaration of it all can relate.  We all want to be unique.  We want to do what no one has ever achieved before.  We want our voices to be heard.

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The thing is, though–there are no truly new ideas.  Every story has been told.  The ex-con who wants a second chance after he serves time for his wrongdoing?  It’s been told.  The jilted lover who vows revenge on the creep who wronged her?  It’s been told.  The lunatic fan of a writer who captures him and tortures him in her remote Colorado home?  That’s been told, too.

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The three seventh-graders who share the same dream of a mysterious “ghost girl,” and who tell their troubles to the class genius, which, in turn, kicks off a wild, imaginative journey across the void?  Yes.  That’s been told, too . . .

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Does this mean we’re all doomed?  That all artists, all creators of any kind are all relegated to endless regurgitations of the same, chewed-over themes and ideas?  To a degree, yes.  But, to a greater degree–absolutely not.  Even though every story has been told a thousand times over, a thousand-thousand times over, there is still much room for originality and “newness.”  But how?  On the surface, this appears to be a contradiction.  How can we offer anything new or different when everything’s already been done?

If we are talking strictly about ideas, themes, plots, techniques, as my friend John was–then yes.  It is impossible to be unique.  But that’s not what we’re talking about.  We are talking about individuals, writers, artists–people.  You and me.  You might write a story about a jilted lover who vows revenge.  Is that “new”?  Of course not.  But!  This particular jilted lover arises from your own imagination, which, in turn, is nurtured and shaped by your own circumstances, perspectives, points of view, experiences, outlooks, and a multitude of other aspects that are uniquely yours.  These aspects, these attributes, then, become the guiding force behind your tale.  They give newness and vitality to your voice.  They present the world with a picture, a story, a creation that only you could have made.

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The idea may be as old as time itself.  But the essence, the heart of the story–that is what you bring to it.  A contradiction?  Perhaps.  But I believe it is also the truth.  We all tell the same stories.  And yet . . . we all tell different stories, too, stories that are autographed by our own imaginary and unique fingerprints.

So, John, old friend–if you’re reading this . . . somewhere . . . your quest to create something new and different is in fact possible.  Just write what you feel, write what you fear, write what you hate, write what you love.  From your perspective.

Then share it with the world.

And rest assured . . .

We’ve never seen anything like it before.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the Crossroads of Infinity . . .

Pick a point, any point.  It can, literally, be anything, anywhere, anytime.  From this point, look out in all directions.  Imagine an invisible line, tiny, microscopically thin, shooting through time and space.  If you were to imagine this line replicated again and again and again–would there be any end to it?  A million lines, a billion, a billion-billion . . . they would shoot out, imperceptibly, everywhere, never ending, always seeking and probing and searching for something more.

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This is the kind of feeling I always get when I sit down to write a new story.  A story can begin anywhere.  For instance, take the following situation . . .

Sharon is a thirty-year-old woman who works for a computer software company as a technical writer.  She is the only liberal-arts sort of person amid a sea of logically thinking programmers.  She enjoys her job, mostly enjoys her coworkers, but sometimes feels out of place.  On one particular afternoon, she neglects to save a document she has been working on for several hours.  Her mind is elsewhere–on her parents’ divorce, her daughter Lauren’s struggles adjusting to the first grade, her creepy new neighbor who too often studies her with something in his eyes she doesn’t like.  And when the prompt pops up to save her changes, she doesn’t do it.   Only after closing out of the document does she realize what she’s done.  Hours of work gone to waste.  She will need to start all over, work late–it’s a time-sensitive document, and needs to be finished by tomorrow.  How could she have been so stupid?  She calls her sister, asks if she can babysit Lauren until she gets home.  “I’m so sorry,” she says.  Her sister tells her it’s no problem.

Hours later, nearing evening now, she arrives home, exhausted, frustrated.  Alarm bells immediately ring in her head when she pulls into the drive.  Her sister’s car is nowhere to be found.  “It’s okay,” she tells herself.  She must have picked Lauren up and taken her to her own house.  She pulls out her cell, calls her sister.  While the phone on the other end rings, she notices her neighbor sitting out in a lawn chair.  He salutes her with a beer bottle and smiles.  Something inside her crawls.  Of all people, why did he have to buy the house next door?

She gets her sister’s voice mail, leaves a message.  She tries to convince herself that everything is all right, but a bad feeling nags her, takes hold of something deep within, and locks on tight.

***********

Where should this story begin?  What would the first scene look like?  The first paragraph?  The first sentence?  You could start it anywhere.  Maybe at the office, just when Sharon fails to save her changes and realizes she needs to start over.  Maybe earlier that day, in the lunch room, when she has an upsetting conversation with a coworker.  Maybe when she calls her sister, asking her to babysit.  Maybe when she arrives home, sees her ogling neighbor, and gets a bad feeling.  Any one of these starting points would work, along with so many others.  The options beckon, tantalize, mock, jockey for position.  And it doesn’t end when an opening sequence is selected.  Whichever way you begin a story has reverberations that filter through the rest of it, like ripples in a pond.  One sentence leads to the next, one scene shapes and influences the next.  At every stage, there are decisions, choices, and consequences.

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When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, I had a premise–three boys each sharing the same dream, three nights in a row.  Each one thinks he is the only one having the dream, not realizing–yet–that it’s a shared experience.  Given this, I could have started the novel anywhere.  I decided to begin with Mitchell Brant in the midst of this recurring nightmare–dreaming of the “ghost girl”–again.  How would the novel read, though, if I had opened with Joe Marma or Ryan Swinton instead?  Or even Marc Kuslanski, the one protagonist who does not experience this dream?  The idea, the overall concept of the plot, might have remained the same, but the end result, with each scene leading in to the next, would have looked quite different.

And of course with writing, with art–there are no airtight equations, no 1 + 2 = 3 comfort zones.

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Whatever choice you make on page 7 will influence what happens on page 8, and page 88 and page 308.  It is natural to ask, throughout the process, “Did I make the right choice?”  But the thing is, in a story, in a movie, in a painting, in a song–there is no “right” and “wrong.”  There is only art.  Hopefully, a story will interest and captivate the reader, a movie enthrall the viewer, a painting mesmerize the onlooker, and a song move and engage the listener.  Even then, every reader is different, every viewer unique.  In the end, all we can do is tell our story the best way we know how, tell it with feeling and passion, with heart–tell it because, if we don’t let it out, it will scratch and kick and punch, demanding to be let loose onto the page.

At one juncture in The Eye-Dancers, the intuitive, imaginative Mitchell Brant tells the logical, rational Marc Kuslanski, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  When it comes to art–that may well be our best guide as we travel through the myriad choices at our disposal.  You can write the greatest scene in the world (it would pass the technical 1 +2 = 3 test with flying colors)–but if it seems out of place, if it doesn’t feel right to you, then it doesn’t belong in your story.  The detail-oriented work of revisions and line editing await–but the creative first-draft stage is all about endless possibilities and wide, expansive vistas that spread out before us like green, lush valleys full of promise and potential.

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All those choices can be daunting.  You can take your story anywhere.  But isn’t life like that, too?  Each moment presents its own limitless set of possibilities, and whichever course you take directly influences the next moment, and the next, and the next . . .

Daunting?  Yes.  But liberating, too.

Because every day, every minute, every second, we stand . . .

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. . . at the crossroads of infinity.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Do You Believe in Miracles?

During the waning moments of the hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, broadcaster Al Michaels uttered the now famous line, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Certainly, prior to the game, a miracle was the only hope anyone gave the American hockey team.  Composed of a collection of college kids, the U.S. team was a hard-nosed, well-conditioned group, but way out of their league squaring off against the Soviets.

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The Soviet team, which had won every gold medal since 1964, was considered the best in the world, more powerful, even, than professional teams in the NHL.  In fact, just months before the start of the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets had thrashed an all-star team of NHL players, 6–0.  And days before the Olympics began, the Americans faced the Soviets in an exhibition game, losing 10–3.

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For Team U.S.A, it appeared to be a case of Mission Impossible.

To everyone on the outside, that was.  But Coach Herb Brooks believed in his team’s chances, and instilled in them that same belief.

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Most teams, he explained, were afraid of the Soviets, didn’t think they could compete with them, and, in essence, had already lost the game before it even began.  It would be different with this U.S. group.  In the locker room before the game, Brooks told his team, “You were born to be a player.  You were meant to be here.  This moment is yours.”

Team U.S.A. had talent, of course.  They represented the best amateur players in the country.  But it wasn’t talent that would enable them to defeat the “unbeatable” Soviets.  It was an ability to believe in the near-impossible, a faith to hold on to their dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It was, in short, a belief in miracles.

**********

In the Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can,” this same principle is explored, tested, and, ultimately fulfilled–for all who believe.  For those who don’t–the ending is quite different.

Charles Whitley is a retiree who lives at the Sunnyvale Rest Home.

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One summer day, while looking out the window, Charles can’t help but notice a group of children playing Kick the Can and Hide-and-Seek on the grounds of the Rest Home.  He’s delighted watching them, and remembers playing the same games in his youth.  His roommate, Ben Conroy, is less nostalgic, and just wants the kids to go away so he can have some peace and quiet.  “They’re making enough noise to raise the dead,” he moans.

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But Charles continues to ponder.  Kick the Can.  Hide-and-Seek.  “All kids play those games,” he says.  “And the minute they stop–they begin to grow old.”  And miracles?  Magic?  He and Ben used to believe in magic once, too, when they were kids.  But not anymore.  “What happened?” he asks.  “What changed?”  Ben says they grew up, that’s all.  “Everybody gets over it.”

Charles, though, is undeterred.  Thinking out loud, he says, “Maybe the people who stay young  . . . maybe they know a secret that they keep from the rest of us.  Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all.  Maybe it’s a way of looking at things, a way of thinking.”

Listening to this, Ben thinks Charles is going crazy, and worries about him.  And when Charles persists in his new outlook, when he starts acting like a kid, playing tricks and running through sprinklers, the other residents of the Home begin to wonder about him, too.

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That night, late, Charles wakes the residents up, asking them to remember the way it used to be, when they were kids, how they would sneak outside and play Kick the Can.  The others reminisce, too, wistfully.  “Seems like a million years ago.”  “Look how I’ve changed,” they say.

Charles tries to encourage them to join him, to go outside and play.  He looks out the window, into the night.  “Can’t you hear it?” he says.  “Summer.  Grass!  Run!  Jump!  Youth!”  “Wake up!” he pleads.  “I can’t play Kick the Can alone.”

The others join him–all except for Ben, who thinks it nothing but foolishness.  They’re old, he says.  They’ll hurt themselves trying to play a children’s game.

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Charles won’t accept that.  “There is magic in the world,” he says. . . .  “And maybe–Kick the Can is the greatest magic of all.”  But Ben won’t go–he remains inside while the others head out to play.

Later, when he does go outside to see what’s happening, Ben is amazed to find a group of children playing Kick the Can.  Only then does he realize–Charles had been right.  The magic did exist.  It was real.  Wanting to join his friends, now magically transformed into children, Ben, begging for a second chance, asks the suddenly young Charles to take him along, too, to make him a kid again.  But Charles the boy no longer recognizes him, and returns to the game.

The gravity of it hits Ben hard–it’s too late.  For the miracle to happen, for the magic to work, he had to believe when the others did.

***********

It is no different in The Eye-Dancers.

After Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are marooned in the variant town of Colbyville, they discover that the only way to make the trans-universe journey back home is rife with question marks, uncertainties, and risks.  After everything they’ve faced, the challenges and dangers they’ve overcome, their chances of getting back to Earth seem all too bleak.

On the night they intend to go back home, utilizing methods they don’t understand and relying on the same “ghost girl” who got them into this jam to begin with, Joe Marma struggles to try and find a reason for optimism.  He does.  Reflecting on everything that’s taken place, he believes that, somehow, some way, someone must have been watching out for them the entire time.  Too much had happened, too many fortuitous “coincidences” had occurred, to chalk it all up to blind chance.

The text reads:

” . . . Or so he wanted to think.  Maybe it wasn’t true.  Maybe they were just lucky.

“But he didn’t buy that.  He wouldn’t accept it.  Now was not the time to doubt.  It was a time to hope, to trust.  To have faith.  In what or whom, it didn’t really matter.”

All that mattered was that they believe. . . .

So, to return to Al Michaels’ question at the end of Team U.S.A. defeating the vaunted Soviets.  It might just as well have been rhetorical.  No one would have blamed Michaels for not providing us with an answer.

But he did.

It was an answer that the four protagonists in The Eye-Dancers would, by novel’s end, agree with.  It was an answer the residents of Sunnyvale Rest Home not only agreed with, but lived out.  All but one, anyway.

It was an answer, I hope, that we all can echo . . .

“Do you believe in miracles?”

“Yes!”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Road (Not) Taken

On July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, between games of a twi-night doubleheader, there was a disco explosion.  Literally.  In game one, the Detroit Tigers defeated the Chicago White Sox, 4–1.  There would be no second game.  The reason?  A promotion that turned into a riot.

The White Sox were slogging through the 1979 season, mired in mediocrity.  Attendance was spotty, and the team was going nowhere fast.  Hoping to inject some interest, the Sox teamed up with local radio personality Steve Dahl.  Why not have a hate-on-disco night?  Why not cart thousands of disco records out onto the field between games of the doubleheader and then–explode them!  And so–Disco Demolition Night was born.  It all sounded good to the promoters.  But then things got out of control.

When the button was pushed, and the disco discs were blasted into bits, waves of fans stormed the field.  A riot broke out, and, due to the explosion and fans, the playing field was damaged, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader.

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To this day, Disco Demolition Night remains one of the most ridiculed and notorious  baseball promotions of all time.  It also is sometimes referred to as “the day that disco died.”  Days after the demolition, on July 21, 1979, the top six songs on U.S. music charts were disco.  Just two months later, by the end of September, not one disco song was listed in the top ten.

What happened?  How could something so enormously popular one minute become so mocked and dissed just a short while later?  As the 1970s flickered and died, so, too, did disco.  I remember, growing up in the ’80s, how my two older brothers and their friends would mock the disco craze of their younger years.

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Disco was, essentially, a fad.  It had no staying power, no ability to transcend its generation.  There are still some who enjoy it, and think fondly back to its heyday, and there has even been something of a disco revival among fans.  But, culturally speaking, it enjoyed its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.  And that was all.

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This brings another question to the forefront.  Are things so different with writing?  Certainly there are fads in the literary world, as well.  Trends.  “Hot” topics and genres.  The Twilight series caused an explosion in young adult vampire fiction.  The Hunger Games and its sequels have initiated a surge in dystopian story lines.  Is this a trap writers should avoid?  Is it a mistake to ride the coattails of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, as well as the other best-selling novelists who determine the trends of the industry?

Perhaps it’s better to go in a different direction.  Maybe it’s wiser to write about other things, to explore the realms that are not “hot” today, but may be tomorrow.  Maybe we can be the trend-setters.

Robert Frost famously wrote:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by.

And that has made all the difference.”

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Granted, these lines are taken slightly out of context, used in isolation here.  But the idea is still worth thinking about.  Is it better to travel the untrodden path?  Or the popular one?  Is it better to write what’s “hot”?  Or to deliberately go against it?

I would argue both are valid, and both are misguided.  Because, whether you write about something that’s in vogue or about something that’s currently standing far removed from the crowd, the end result won’t be worth reading unless it’s your story.  You can write about sultry, beautiful vampires with a mysterious and unknowable backstory.  You can write about flesh-eating zombies that create havoc in a world reeling from their takeover.  You can write about erotic red rooms of pain.  Something is not artistically “less than” simply because it fits in with contemporary popular culture and trends.  If you approach the story with your own ideas, and if you write it because you feel like you’ll burst if you don’t get it down on the page–then it’s a valid, original piece of work.  Likewise, if you decide to write the “anti-vampire” story just to prove a point, just to throw dirt in the eye of popular culture, such a work is not really your own.  It’s merely a forced attempt to go against the grain, to be contrary for contrary’s sake.

We each have a unique and layered perception of the world.  Shaped by our experiences, which in turn are distilled and perceived through our personalities, bents, idiosyncrasies, passions, desires, fears and dreams, we each have a story to tell that is uniquely our own.

I wrote The Eye-Dancers because I felt driven to write it.  The initial idea formed after a dream I had more than twenty years ago.  I dreamed of the “ghost girl” who haunts the dreams of Mitchell and Joe and Ryan.  I dreamed of her, wraith-like, frightening, yet unable to be ignored, and I knew I had to write about her.  For years, I didn’t know how or where to put her into a story–until I dreamed of her again more than a decade and a half later.  This time, when I woke up, the genesis of The Eye-Dancers was in place.  Immediately, I began writing it.  There is nothing like that epiphany, that moment when an idea hits, unasked for, unplanned, and you just know you have a story to tell.  It is a high like no other.

And so I wrote.  I wrote about the ghost girl, yes.  But I also wrote about childhood, and the four main characters in the story are inspired by friends I knew growing up.  We used to talk about things, wonder aloud what’s “out there.”  We’d ask questions like, What if this world, this earth we know and live on, is just one of many earths?  What if we each have doubles, triples, an infinite number of “selves” in other, parallel universes?  And what if there existed a connection so strong between two people, two strangers, that, even a universe apart, they were somehow able to communicate?  Questions like these, the kinds of things I’ve always been fascinated by, drove the story of The Eye-Dancers.  And the relationships I shared with my childhood friends served as the heart-engine of the novel.

Maybe The Eye-Dancers is a good story, well told.  Or–maybe it’s full of shortcomings and faults.  Perhaps it’s a little of both.  Ultimately, that’s not my call to make.  I leave that to you.  But what I can say is this–it is my story, something I felt compelled to write, and driven to complete, even on those days when the narrative seemed to bog down or the characters didn’t want to cooperate.

In the end, that’s about all we can do.  Write the things that matter to us as individuals.  Sometimes these topics, themes, and passions yell and kick, demanding to be let free onto the page.  Other times, they are hidden, like fragments tucked away in a secret corner of the heart.  Either way, cultivate them.  Listen to them.  Share them.  They are yours.

A paradox, perhaps.  But a truth nonetheless . . .

When you write for yourself, you write for us all.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Golden Mean

In the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams, has one of his students read aloud from the Introduction to their poetry textbook.  The author of the Introduction, a Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, provides, in dry detail, the method by which we should measure and grade poetry.  As the student reads, Keating begins illustrating these concepts on the blackboard, depicting a bar graph.  This Introduction, in other words, is attempting to break poetry down, almost as if it were a mathematical equation.

After the Introduction has been read aloud in its entirety, and after illustrating its principles on the blackboard, Keating turns to his class and says, simply, “Excrement.  That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.”

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And then, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he tells his class to rip out the Introduction from their poetry textbooks.  They pause, wondering if he’s serious.  He assures them he is.  Then, one by one, the class rips out the pages, discarding the views of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.

“Words and ideas can change the world!” Keating thunders a moment later.  He is appalled that anyone would try to measure poetry in a methodical, systematic way.  He exclaims such an endeavor rips the life out of the words, turns the beautiful into something mundane, something to be dissected and probed, and poked.

Surely, an intuitive, creative soul like Mitchell Brant would agree with Mr. Keating.  And so would the impulsive Joe Marma, who prefers to act first and think and plan second.  Marc Kuslanski, on the other hand, logic-driven to the core, would probably side with J. Evans Pritchard.

How do we measure great poetry, or great writing, in general?  Furthermore, when we have an idea, a situation, a character we simply must write about–how do we know when we’re ready?  Take a novel, for instance.  When do you begin page 1?  After you’ve come up with a protagonist, and perhaps a villain, and a situation to put said protagonist in?  What if you have a distinct image in mind? Long before I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I had a dream about the “ghost girl” who appears in chapter one, and throughout the novel.  In my dream, I experienced what Mitchell does in that first chapter.  Seeing this wraith-like girl with the blue, blue eyes, calling, beckoning, like an apparition.  That was over twenty years ago.  When I woke from that dream, I wanted desperately to write a story around it.  But I didn’t have one.  I just had that image, that opening scene, if you will.  What to do with it?  Where to go?  It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, when I had the same dream, a second time, and then woke up with a workable idea in place, that I actually began writing The Eye-Dancers.

I wonder what John Keating in Dead Poets Society would say about that.  Perhaps he’d say I am too analytical, need too much to be “in place” before I begin.  I know that’s what Stephen King would probably say.  In his memoir, On Writing, King says, straight out, “Plot is . . . the good writer’s last resort  and the dullard’s first choice.  The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”  King explains that he begins with a situation first, and then the characters, and then he begins to narrate.  While he has an outcome in mind, he’s not locked in to it.  His characters, he says, often do and say things he never expects.

For me, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle–“the golden mean.”  For some writers (and who am I to argue with Stephen King?), just having a situation and some characters in mind is enough.  Without much of a plot yet, they can steam forward and begin.  I need more.  Before I begin a long work, like a novel, I need to have some idea where I want to go, how the book will likely end (at least in a general way), and I often have a broad story line in place.  I don’t do chapter-by-chapter outlines, since I find those too constricting, and, as King points out, characters often do the oddest things.  You may think something will turn out some way, and then it turns out another way.  Some flexibility is necessary, or else you’ll stifle the creative process.  But to begin without a fairly concrete direction already in place?  Without at least some measure of a plot in place?  That is something I can’t seem to do.

Certainly, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer here.  It really is a case of, “Whatever works for you”–as long as, throughout the process, the magic of spontaneous creativity is not stifled or ignored.

So for some, diving right in, without much information to go on, will work great.  Call this the Mitchell Brant or Joe Marma approach.  For others, in-depth planning is essential–the Marc Kuslanski Theory of Storytelling.

For me, it’s a combination of the two.  And if opposites like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski can learn to tolerate each other (albeit barely!) in The Eye-Dancers, then, hopefully, I’m on the right path.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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