Two Little Words

Two Little Words

Skull image with "What if" questions
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I am going to hand you the keys to the kingdom, the magical secret to an infinite supply of writing ideas – no matter what genre you write in (okay, if you’re aiming for autobiographies or non-fiction, you’re out of luck – but, as I’ve mentioned before, those people aren’t likely visiting this blog). Like all dramatic secrets, it’s exceedingly simple, and you’ll kick yourself if you haven’t already been exploiting it:

What if…

That’s it! So simple and yet so amazing! Those two little words are a crazy gold mine of inspiration! You can apply them across the fictional board, creating pages of story ideas that span from flash fiction up to novel-worthy lengths. After all, we know writers have a surfeit of imagination, so it takes very little effort on our part to start wondering things. Let me demonstrate.

What if a fairy tale was swapped to a science fiction setting? Disney pulled it off beautifully with Treasure Planet (such an under-appreciated film). I’ve done so myself: my short story “Glissando” is a retelling of the “The Nightingale.” Yeah, it takes WORK to transplant something that is so well-known into a different setting, but it you’re willing to take on the challenge, the reward is worth it.

What if you swap the protagonists and antagonists in a well-known story? Neil Gaiman did an amazing job in “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Again, it takes a deft hand to flip an established story in the mirror (no pun intended), but who doesn’t relish a challenge? Best of all, it gives you a chance to explore the background of the antagonist, to give them motives and sympathy – something overlooked in those fond fairy tales.

(Side note: fairy tales get a lot of mention here – sorry, not sorry)

What if the story didn’t end where the author left off? What if there was something left out? What if there wasn’t a “happily ever after” after all? You can take something bright and glittery and turn it dark if you have the mind. Personally, I despise “Snow White and Seven Dwarves” – I always have; Snow White is a complete idiot, and I didn’t feel she deserved a happy ending. So in my short story “Everapple” I took it away. In a similar fashion, I really felt there was an injustice done in “The Little Mermaid” – that scheming princess lied and there were no repercussions. How could Hans Christian Anderson let that stand?! In “Sea Foam and Fire” I fixed it. Yes, both of my short stories fall square in the dark fantasy category, but they came out of my asking, “What if…”

You can do the same thing!

Look at the stories that irk you and bother you, and start asking, “what if this..” Now, you can’t violate copyright (which is why fairy tales are a boon since they belong to the public domain), but you can still use them as a starting point. Those two little words will get your inspirational juices flowing, believe me. You can even mine multiple ideas from the same story, depending on how many questions you ask.

Using “what if” for broad questions works, too. I’ve done it for several of my novels, the questions just floating to the surface of my mind out of the blue (play the game often enough, and it’ll happen to you, too – inspiration’s fun that way). “What if there was a version of Neverland for adults?” Bam! – my novel Lethe started breathing. “What if the villain was the main character and you built sympathy in the reader from the start?” And Confessions of a Teenage Villain (title still pending – titles I’m never sure of until I’m well into the novel) came to life. “What if depression was a living, breathing character?” Suddenly, that vague idea I couldn’t figure out turned into Oubliette.

Those two words are a reader’s dream. Whenever you hit a brick wall, sit down and start asking, “What if…” and just write out the questions. Something will strike your writing brain in just the right way, and you’ll be zooming along in no time. You’ll be amazed at how many questions you can think of (and the kinds of questions you’ll come up with – believe me, I scare myself on a regular basis).

Two words – unlimited inspiration. Give it a try.

Wedding Guilt

Wedding Guilt

Our wedding planning calendar for June

In a little under six months – November 14th, to be precise – is our wedding day. It sounds like a lot of time, plenty of time to finish up the details yet to be finalized and checked off the list in the binder currently living on the coffee table shelf. When I first bought the whiteboard calendars and set up a reasonable schedule for tasks, I thought so, too.

Enter COVID-19.

See all of those check boxes at the bottom of June? Yeah, some of those are carryovers from April: tasks we had to bump when doors were slammed shut. While we’ve been able to move some things up and handle them online (where would we be without Etsy?), others require physical visits and shifts in the schedule, waiting for lock-down to lift. Now, being the hyper-organized individual that I am, the schedule was already “early” to account for a fiance’ who hates getting on the phone, talking to people, and has a schedule less flexible than mine. Plus, I come from a military family – you always build in extra time for Murphy’s Law.

So I told myself to breathe and take it easy – there was still time. And, really, we’re doing fine. We had the bulk of the planning done before the New Year, and there are tubs of favors and decorations under the bed in the guest room, all ready to go. Neither of us wanted to stress about the wedding from the beginning, so we made sure we had the game plan laid out from square one (okay, square two – I didn’t scare him with my Pinterest boards until the day after he proposed). We’re okay.

And then I felt like shit.

Why was I feeling okay and relaxing when so many other people were cancelling or rescheduling their weddings? When people were losing money because asshole corporations were flipping them off with a, “Too bad – your contract doesn’t cover plagues” answer? When people were making do with quiet champagne toasts at home – maybe with bouquets left on their porch if friends and neighbors dropped by? (What would the world do if alcohol wasn’t deemed essential?) When people were taking photos with everyone in masks – such a treasured memory? (Now, if you went with the zombie apocalypse theme, I apologize – it worked)

I wanted to crawl into a corner and hide. I was smiling over receiving my beautiful shoes in the mail, laughing over choosing the comics to include in the origami bouquets and boutonnieres, grinning over finally ordering our wedding bands, and shrieking over how adorable our cake toppers were. (Okay, to be fair, those last arrived before lock-down ever started) What kind of person did that when other people were miserable and crying? Who feels excited and plans when other people watch significant dates pass in the rear view mirror? (Our date isn’t significant, in case you wondered)

Oh, right – a bride.

See, I never went to prom. In fact, I’ve never attended a formal event of any kind in my entire life. This wedding is the fanciest thing I’ve got. And a wedding is a one-shot deal. (Don’t quote divorce numbers to me – I know them. I’m an idealist…well, when it comes to marriage. I’m definitely only doing this one). Why shouldn’t I be happy and excited and continue with my planning?

It doesn’t mean I can’t still feel bad and sympathetic for those around me, though. Amazing as it seems to some people, but I can feel more than one thing at a time. I can be happy for my fiance’ and myself, and still send condolences to my friends. After all, it’s not like those wedding planners come with a caveat: “Make sure you anticipate the world going into lock-down and plan accordingly.” No one thought about this over a year ago, thought this was going to be a possibility. They were just happy.

And the universe is a sick, twisted entity.

We all know that NOW. (So if you get engaged during this lock-down – think long and hard before planning a big wedding. I’m just saying) Besides, I’m not in the clear yet. Guess when that second wave is getting predicted for: yup, November.

Panicking sounds fun, and I’m really good at it, but it won’t accomplish anything. And, as I said before, we’re already ahead of the game. Which means we’ve also started the Back-up Plan. We know – from current complaints and articles – the company renting the beach house won’t refund our money or let us out of our contract. Okay – no biggie; maybe we just have the family out for the wedding. It’s a BIG house, so staying separated won’t be a problem. And, really, who doesn’t like cake?

Will it be what we originally planned? Probably not. Does it matter? No. If all that mattered was the wedding, you’re getting married for the wrong reason.

So for the people who are planning and excited – good for you. For the people who cancelled or rescheduled and feel sad or miserable (or pissed) – I see you, too, and I feel for you. There’s no wrong way to feel, and that’s what really matters.

Shoveling…Something

Shoveling…Something

Writers are often told to sit down and write something – anything – at all times. All writing is just “shoveling sand into the sandbox” so you have something to work with later. It’s a beautiful thought, and, in theory, it works great. It stops you from working too hard at finding the perfect turn of phrase, and it get can you around writer’s block.

In reality? It doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, you look down and realize that what you’re shoveling isn’t sand – and you are never going to build a sandcastle out of that mess. When there are extenuating outside circumstances intruding and overriding your brain, you get blocked in other ways. In that case, there does come a time to set the shovel down.

I mention this because I’m facing such a time myself. Pain has invaded my entire brain, and everything I put down is absolute crap – literally. There’s nothing redeeming about it, and simply throwing words down to get words down is more frustrating than helpful. Writing when you’re frustrated?

Bad idea!

All I’m going to end up doing is erasing everything later – waste of time. So what do you do in these situations? You read. You read your previous work. You read someone else’s work (don’t edit someone else’s work – that isn’t fair to them). You read cereal boxes. Just engage the creative part of your brain in another form.

And let the sandbox have a break – the sand will be there tomorrow.

The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!

From Form to Note

From Form to Note

Submitting your work is the acid test for any writer, as is the collection of rejections (fact of life – if you’re not prepared for that, writing is not for you). Well, one of my short stories – “Glissando” – graduated from receiving the standard rejection form letter to receiving a rejection with an added note!

Even better, the note rejected the story not for the writing, but for subjective reasons! Which boils down to turning around and sending it out to the next market without a need to make any edits.

These are the kind of moments a writer lives for…well, you know, and those moments when your work gets accepted.

Meet Firefly: The Perfect Gentleman

Meet Firefly: The Perfect Gentleman

Firefly - the very handsome

Firefly is pretty much the polar opposite of Tonks: the oldest, refined, well-behaved at all times, and while we guessed at her birth date, I know his almost down to the hour. This dapper gentleman has been a part of my life since before he was born (true story!), through terrible boyfriends, through less-than-stellar dates, right through my engagement and current wedding plans. And if he prefers to sprawl across my fiance’s chest to snuggling beside me, I try not to take it personally (he still sleeps next to me – that’s all I’m going to say).

My handsome little man was born under my bed – literally. His mother was a tiny little foster, and he and his brother, Smoke (who lives with my parents) came into the world in the wee hours of the morning on July 10, 2008. Contrary to what EVERYONE thinks, he wasn’t named for the TV show (sorry to disappoint). He got his name for the white tip at the end of his tail. There was no plan for either of the tykes to stay – they were fosters, after all – but Firefly’s journey down the road of lemon-hood started early (it’s so easy to justify not wanting to foist a kitten with medical issues off on someone, isn’t it?). Almost twelve years later, I regret nothing.

(My bank account does not get an opinion)

Regal though our boy may be, his list of problems seems to compound on a yearly basis. Things were slow to start, though, and he easily out-stripped his tiny mom in size: both he and smoke topped 17 pounds – and they were just plain BIG cats! He could (and still can) stretch from one end of a queen-sized bed to the other! Courtesy of that size (and Firefly’s good temperament) both boys were blood donors, saving the lives of other cats on numerous occasions (in fact, Firefly saved Squeak’s life – but that’s a tale for another post). Which was when karma decided she wasn’t in the mood to return the favor.

The Universe has a sick sense of humor.

In 2014, Firefly was diagnosed with diabetes mellatus. That put an end to his donation career, and it set him up for a lifetime of insulin injections. He tolerates them very well, I have to admit, though I curse the pharmaceutical company on a regular basis. I would have been content to juggle that problem, but Firefly wasn’t quite done yet.

In 2018, my then-boyfriend (now fiance’) noticed he was missing a canine tooth. A trip to the dentist revealed feline oral resorptive lesions (FORL) AND, just for fun, his lab work showed hyperthyroidism. Now he needed another medication. Once his T4 returned to normal levels, he was able to undergo anesthesia for dental radiographs…which showed FORL on EVERY SINGLE TOOTH IN HIS LITTLE HEAD. The poor thing ended up having full-mouth extractions. It cured the problem, and he eats fine – he just looks funny when he hisses at you (think of a snake).

Good enough, right? WRONG!

His blood pressure started climbing, requiring not one but TWO more medications to get things under control. (Not having any teeth DOES make pilling him a breeze)

Apparently, the Universe was still bored.

Remember the hyperthyroidism? Well, his thyroid decided that the twice daily pills just weren’t cutting it…and upping the dose didn’t do the trick, either. Nope, it was time to break out the radioactive isotope. I-131 is an injection that targets the abnormal cells in the thyroid and destroys them, effectively curing hyperthyroidism. The end of October 2019, he received the therapy, and his T4 is now normal – one problem solved!

The Universe hates answered problems.

Through all this – I would like to point out – Firefly has been the best patient in the world. He is sweet as pie, and everyone who works with him loves him. So when we noticed the weird spot on his right eye, I wasn’t too worried. Well, turns out he has a sequestrum…and an ulcer on the left…and low tear production which is inhibiting healing in both. Fast forward five months, and we’re still battling all three.

**mindless sobbing goes here**

Firefly cuddling with his ostrich toy

Our poor little guy has a giant list of problems – no one questions that – but he also has a heart of gold. He snuggles with his sister (his brother, not so much), he loves his new Daddy, and he always comes up to me when he wants something. He is my favorite child, and I don’t care who knows that. Everyone who meets him falls in love with right away, and he thrives on the attention.

You couldn’t ask for more of a trooper. He’s been through a lot, but he continues to behave as good as gold. How Tonks has failed to learn from him, I’ll never know. He’s my darling little man, and I was never luckier than when I heard those tiny mews under my bed.