Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dreams, Schemes & Chicken Wings

John Ramsey Miller

In a dream I had the other night I was teaching a creative writing course and in class we were having a round robin and each student proposed a character and a setting. I chose three characters (the maximum number allowable by my rules) and I chose the time and place. Each student used those elements and came up with a plot. The short stories were written and I was going to put them all together in booklets without the author’s name being included and the students would vote on their favorite. I thought the only problem would be a perfectly split vote, but I was wrong as all of the students turned in the same story, which meant that all but one had cheated.

I think I remembered the dream correctly, but looking back I doubt that the dream could have lasted long enough for all for the segments I just wrote to be faithful to what I dreamed. So I probably perked the dream over the past few days, which brings me to the point of my blog. We get ideas from sparks we catch in our everyday lives, and those sparks grow into flames over time. It doesn’t take much to trigger our imaginations, and to give us the basis for a story. The same idea tossed out to a group of individuals would become a group of stories that would be entirely different. There really are no new ideas, just variations in execution of those ideas.

I have never been afraid of anyone taking my big idea and writing the book I was going to write. They could write a book, as can I, but they would be as different as scotch and grape juice.

I don’t mind telling people what I’m working on, but not for fear that they will steal the concept and beat me to the punch. I don’t talk much about what I’m working on because in my case I think it robs the project of crucial energy. When authors (let’s say aspiring authors) ask me about the safety of sending their golden pages off to an agent or to publishers and fearing someone will loot their MS for their great ideas, I assure them that there is no shortage of ideas, just a shortfall of quality executions of ideas. What publishers want is decent-selling authors who can deliver a well-executed book at regular intervals. Oh, yeah, they want each book to sell enough to make up for the ones that don’t sell, but that’s a different story.

We all see the world differently. Each of us filters what we write through our experiences just as we write in our own personal styles and we more or less can’t help but do it that way. Someone asked me recently what my style was, and I replied that I wrote like I talk, like I think, then tried to cut out 75% of the words on the draft pages.

This week my wife wrote a story for, which is a great lifestyle site her sister coproduces. I read the first paragraph and thought it was something I had written about our chickens. I made a few minor tweaks for her, but truthfully it was every bit as well written as what I write, maybe better than what I had written on the same two incidents. It was clear, clean, concise and humorous She said, “writing is fun.” She’d discovered my secret––one I’d managed to hide from her for 34 years.

My editor once told me that writing was only hard if you do it right and I agree. I think most things are that way, especially building model cars.

I watch AX MEN, but I'm not sure I should. Next week I’ll tell you about dropping a dead tree that I feared would fall on my shed, and felling it directly onto my shed.

So long, and good writing.


  1. There you go with those chickens again! Great insight as always, John. You do know that I would swap my flamingos for your chickens in a heartbeat.

  2. Last year I started work on a story, only to discover that a Major Author released a book in 2008 with a similar plot device. I feel certain that mine would have been very different--a different thriller subgenre, in fact--but I backed off the project. I don't fear that the book would be too similar, but I do fear being considered "derivative." It's a shame though, because his book wasn't very good. I was dismayed that he'd written such a poor book based on a really great idea.

  3. I really don't like to be seen as derivative, but I also realise that there is little likelihood someone could write something in the same manner or style as I do or I, they unless I really cheat.

    My problem is that my dislike of derivation, commonality, normalcy, repetition etc has led me into a quandary. I am in the middle of the last book of a loosely connected series and find that I am beating myself up trying not to sound derivative of my own previous works. The other three books had surprises and events that made people keep turning the page (actually they've only been released in podcast audio, so they just kept listening as I turned the page). In this one the characters feel too familiar, too transparent.

    Maybe it is just me. Maybe I have grown too close to these characters and like a bad case of visiting relatives too long have tired of hanging out with them.

    Or maybe it is the fact that I have only seen ten hours of sunlight in two weeks and it is flippin' cold and I am wishing I had the cash to take a vacation but my agent still hasn't sold the previous three books I wrote so I am feeling like I am spinning my wheels late on a Sunday night and just plain feeling whiny at a time when no one wants to hear me whine even though just yesterday I had a few hundred people laughing when I did my talk show but now can't even get a simple plot in a simple thriller novel to make sense or even keep the tempo and now I just feel like crawling under my chair and eating those little cheesecake niblet thingies my son brought home yesterday from his job at the fancy Italian restaurant that I can't afford to eat at but don't want to eat right now anyway because I have a serious issue with run-on sentences and can't even figure out where to put the punctuation in this one.

    Sigh...I'm going outside to make snow angles.

    yeah...angles...they're easier than just lay there in a half fetal position in the snow.