The Splice of Life

According to The Writer (March 2006), William F. Nolan has written 165 short stories, 82 books, 45 screenplays and appeared in 300-plus anthologies. His most recognizable work is Logan's Run, upon which the 1975 movie and its upcoming Warner Brothers' remake are based. He was asked this question:

Where do you get the ideas for your fiction?

Nolan: You get ideas from news stories, friends, family, dreams, trips. For instance, The Marble Orchard -- I got the idea for this title from a thought I had while walking past a cemetery years back. Where and when I don't recall, but the headstones in that cemetery looked like stone trees, marble trees -- an entire marble orchard. The image stayed with me

What a wonderful concept. Cemeteries as marble orchards. Notice, he didn't get the idea hunched over his desk, wringing his forehead, staring at a blank screen. He got it on a walk. In the fresh air. Past a cemetery.

Inspiration is closer than you think. It's just outside your door and around the corner. It's on the front page of the newspaper. It's in the dusty wardrobe in the upstairs room. It's on the other side of the looking glass.

Or in Stephen King's case, it's in the cell phone.

The entire premise for King's new book, Cell, is based around an everyday item. Of course, King turns it on its head. In the book, a mysterious phenomenon referred to as “The Pulse” infects the brains of anyone who happens to have their ear to a cell phone when the spike hits. At which point they become flesh-eating zombies. (This confirms all along what I've felt about cell phones and the people who own them.)

Have you noticed that novel ideas are often rooted in the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary? Sometimes, trivial facts can become springboards into oceans of ideas.

My friend and crit partner, Gina Holmes, runs a wonderful blog. If you haven't visited Novel Journey, please check it out. She recently interviewed best-selling author (and wildly creative guy) Bill Myers. When asked about the premise of his new series, he said this:

The new series is Soul Tracker. It takes the brain twelve minutes to die. They record the brain waves of about 1300 volunteers who are dying and are able to recreate the first twelve minute of death in a virtual reality computer. So, you can experience the first twelve minutes of death. You can go to Heaven. You can go to Hell or anywhere in between.

And this guy’s daughter committed suicide--he’s desperate to know where she is. So he enters the chamber...

What an incredibly original idea! But please take note: It started with a simple fact...and was followed by a what if?. Just like most good stories.

FACT: It takes the brain twelve minutes to die.

WHAT IF: Those twelve minutes were recorded...

FACT: X million people own cell phones.

WHAT IF: A mysterious signal was simultaneously sent through them...

Both facts are relatively simple. They were available to you and me. Yet those two authors stopped long enough to ask what if?. They spliced the facts with the what ifs...and we call it ingenuity.

Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, introduced the concept of soft thinking as a necessary ingredient in creativity. Whereas most academic thinking is 'hard', i.e. rigorous and focused, in order to be creative we need to switch to 'soft thinking'. Soft thinking is more playful, spontaneous and much less concerned with finding the answer.

Soft thinking is where the what ifs? emanate.

Sometimes I think we try too hard to be creative. We sit at the keyboard straining to squeeze that one novel nugget out of our constipated brainpan, only to wonder at the hapless turd that required so much energy.

William Nolan was walking by a graveyard. A normal graveyard. No different than ones you and I have seen. Stephen King was watching a woman on a cell phone, like women you've watched; and Bill Myers was reading a medical journal, like the one's at your dentist's office. But they all stopped long enough to ask, what if?

Let me suggest, your next big idea is not that far off. It's really very near. It's in the commonplace, the everday. Like Nolan said, it's in the "news stories, friends, family, dreams, trips." There's inspiration in the ordinary. We've just got to think soft and splice it...assemble the facts and ask, what if?.

Continued next post...


Jeanne Damoff said...

Yes! Two simple words and the door to unexplored worlds swings wide open. Imagination blinks its sleepy eyes, then squeals with childlike glee.

For those of us who've never forgotten how to fly, this is just the sort of game we love best. Thanks for another key to Neverland.

michael snyder said...

Another outstanding post. Worthy of further study. Already looking forward to round three.

And let me apologize in advance for the following 'creative' observation...

Can we then surmise that the cure for constipated brainpan is a mental stool softener?

Gina Holmes said...

This confirms all along what I've felt about cell phones and the people who own them.)

Um..Mike, that'd be about everybody. That comment aside, great post and thanks for the plug. Incidentally, I haven't shared with you yet but I think I've got my next book idea.

My one requirement was for no demons, but alas, I'm afraid that's an unreasonable request to make of myself apparently.

Staying on topic, this new book idea started with an inciting incident. And then past experience with my wacky friend's family.

So don't need the colace afterall!

Ame said...

The Disney Channel has an excellent show for kids called "Out of the Box," where they ask this question often on the show, "What if . . . ?" It would be one worth looking up and watching if you've never had the privalege. The only down side? Now my kids don't understand why they can't ask, "What if ...?" when they are required to do something with the "hard thinking" academic side of their brain!!! hehehehehe

Mike Duran said...

It's a blessing having you, Jeanne. Do the folks at Master's Artist know you're visiting blogs on the bad side of town? And Mike, I knew I couldn't squirt a bowel reference past you. Yes, Gina, believe it or not -- I do not own a cell phone. (Call me a renegade.) And Ame, after putting up with these three, I may indeed need to start watching the Disney Channel. Grace to all!

Anonymous said...

Thought I'd pop in- haven't visited in a while. Great post. Part of what I love about being a writer, is that you can be "working" at anytime. Something my pastor said during the sermon this morning gave me an idea and I started spacing out and planning my story (had to quickly repent and refocus:))
If we didn't leave the keyboard and monitor and go live a bit, what on earth would we write about. I let my mind look for stories everywhere I go- the grocery store, the library, jury duty...
Janet Rubin

Heather Smith said...

I will definitely be taking a new look at my surroundings. Today for instance, I am going to be a third bridesmaid's gown for a third friend who decided to get married this summer. I will be thinking, what if she picks orange? Will I have the courage to tell her there's no way I'll wear an orange dress. Hmmm...maybe there is a story there!

Mike Duran said...

Curse of the Orange Bridesmaid. It's got Oprah's Book Club written all over it, Heather.

Sandy Cathcart said...

Wow! Another timely word! Thanks.

God is on the wind today and the sun warms my skin. I'm turning off the computer and heading out...

with my cell phone, my GPS, and my .44 Special.


And I might just add a pyth (sp?--who cares?) helmet to the ensemble because there's a lot of widow makers falling on my roof. But I can't miss this opportunity...Nah! I'll stick with the cowboy hat.

MeMe said...

Wait a minuet, I thought I remember you asking when you were going to get a cell phone?

Very inspirational!
This makes me ask myself, “what if I used my journal more.” It’s nice to have a place to record thoughts when you get them, then look back and use those thoughts for stories.

I love all the references to Poop!

Champ said...

I would like to hear one of your stories about dogs.