Chaos in a Teacup – Part 7

dellani photo dark redA favorite question asked by chat show hosts, like me, is “Where does your inspiration come from?” Or, we might ask, more specifically, where the inspiration for a specific book came from. Why do we do this? Well, because it’s a good question, and it drives authors crazy.

Inspiration can come from anything, anywhere. Quite often, we can’t pinpoint it to a specific moment. The idea wasn’t there, then it was. It can be a word in conversation, something we see on TV, a traffic snarl, a mud puddle. (This last one is mine, I confess.)

It was a wonderful idea for a short story, back when I was in college. I was walking from the Fine Arts building, across a narrow driveway to he McDonald’s, and a car splashed through a mud puddle. It swirled in a dreamy, hypnotic fashion, making me think of cream swirling in a cup of coffee. I can’t remember the starting line, nor the entire story, now. However, I started writing it on paper napkins while I ate my meal. (I’m sure this is why they switched to those ineffective, half napkins.)

Sometimes, we think of putting two people, from completely different backgrounds, together. I don’t mean just rich vs. poor, but that works. Often, my couples are people who wouldn’t have met, save for a peculiar twist of fate which brought them together.

When I wrote The Ninja Tattoo, I found inspiration in something bizarre and unsettling which happened to me. Though I dramatized it somewhat for my story, it was alarming enough to remember and chronicle. Below is an excerpt from the story, to illustrate what I mean. 

The Ninja Tattoo by Dellani Oakes - 200The road was empty as he drove south toward his job site in Oak Hill. He had an estimate to do down there and had to be in New Smyrna by 10:00, leaving him a couple hours in between. By the time he got to the police station in Edgewater, only a few blocks from his home, he’d joined a convoy of sorts. In the lead was a bronze Ford F150. Directly in front of Teague was a guy on a motorcycle. Behind him was another motorcycle, a red Jeep and, he thought, a third bike behind the Jeep. It seemed odd since the road had been so empty before. He couldn’t quite remember when he came upon these others, but figured they all had the same idea, keeping out of stop and go school zone traffic on US-1.

The pickup was going the speed limit, which was a little frustrating. In fact, the driver went 25, then 20, 30 and 15. Teague wanted to lay on his horn, but didn’t want to startle the biker, so he kept his frustration to himself. The biker didn’t look any happier with the truck than he was. From time to time, he glanced behind him, trying to see around Teague’s white Dodge Ram. Apparently, the motorcycles were traveling together and somehow Teague had gotten in between them.

At the turnoff for 442, the guy ahead of Teague gestured with his left arm, motioning as if he were turning. Teague slowed, anticipating the right turn, but the biker sped up, his black Ninja following the truck as it continued past the intersection. Instead, the red Jeep, followed by another biker, turned right and headed up 442. This left the Ford truck, Teague and two bikers. He wondered what was going on. His overactive imagination clicked into high gear and he started imagining scenarios.

Maybe the guy in the truck is with them and he’s giving directions to the guy on the white Ninja?

He thought that over, wondering how they were communicating. The guy ahead of him was probably about his age with short, sandy brown hair. He had on a T-shirt, baggies, skater shoes and sunglasses.

The biker behind Teague was also on a Ninja, this one bright blue, He wore a white helmet with a dark visor. He was wearing clothing similar to the man ahead of him. What characterized them both was the fact they were heavily tattooed. Teague had first mistaken their coloring as a tan or sunburn. Closer inspection revealed elaborate tattoos on neck, arms and legs.

The road turned right, coming to an end at US-1. Stopping for the light, the man ahead of Teague leaned back on his bike, glancing at the man behind Teague, he pointed left. The other fellow nodded, giving the lead biker a thumbs up. The light changed and the white Ninja followed the truck while the blue one followed Teague.

Feeling a bit paranoid, he moved over to the right lane, anticipating that the biker would go around him. It didn’t even occur to him that the other man would stay behind him, but he did. He didn’t ride Teague’s bumper, rather stayed at least two car lengths back, shadowing him. If Teague changed lanes, so did the biker.

The hairs on his neck stood at attention. Something was decidedly weird. This man’s behavior negated everything Teague had ever seen bikers do. They generally crowded until they could pass, then buzzed around the other vehicles way too fast, disappearing suddenly as they sped up.

Approaching the gated subdivision near Oak Hill, Teague signaled his turn. The biker looked ready to follow, but continued down the highway. As Teague checked in at the security gate, the biker slowed, making a U turn at the next intersection, then he continued back up US-1. Once he was cleared, Teague drove to the house whose yard he was landscaping. He tried to put the bikers out of his mind, but their odd behavior was so out of the ordinary, he couldn’t.

Though dramatized for story purposes, this incident is true. I found it so disturbing, I used it as inspiration for my 2009 NaNo novel. It was so compelling, I submitted it to Tirgearr Publishing, and it became my first novel published with them.

An author can never predict what will inspire them to write, but it’s fun asking them, just to see what they will say.

© 2018 Dellani Oakes

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Chaos in a Teacup – Part 6

dellani photo dark redAs was mentioned in Part 5, characters occasionally go on a rampage, or at least run wild. They don’t heel and they sure as hell aren’t going to apply their own brakes. The first time they do this (or the second, or the twentieth) it can be disconcerting, if not terrifying.

My historical romance, Indian Summer, is a prime example of this. I had, in my foolish naivete, expected the characters to do what I wanted. My intention, when I began the story, was to have Gabriella unhappily married to Manuel, who was to be a drunken gambler who beat her. She would run away, meet Sailfish, and live happily ever after.

Well. That didn’t happen. For starters, Gabriella refused to fall in love with anyone but Manuel. Although he was a bit of a bad boy, he reined himself in, stopped drinking, quit gambling, and became a model citizen! Instead of fighting and causing her to leave, he did everything in his power to protect her. She met Sailfish, who fell for her, but she refused his advances, steadfastly holding onto her love for Manuel.

Sailfish was determined to take over the story, but I convinced him (after a long, in depth chat) to behave. I had to promise his own book, where he fell in love with a woman who would fall for him. Thus, Savage Heart was born.

All this to say – sometimes, characters go mad. It’s true! If you’ve captured their personalities accurately, they will go off the rails. As an author, you shouldn’t be surprised by this. In fact, you should embrace it, because it means you did your job right. Ray Bradbury said it best, “First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.” This is the single best advice I ever gleaned as an author.

Another really good piece of advice, from actor, director, writer, producer, author Ken Farmer. “Just write the damn story.” To elaborate a little: don’t worry about voice, plot, outline, characters, or your approach. Worry about telling the story from start to finish. Problems can be fixed, errors made in editing. Just write the damn story.

I adhere to both of these pieces of advice. I have found them useful more than once, especially if, like now, I’m working on a story that doesn’t want to end. If I try to force an ending, it will become stilted, awkward. Yet, I begin to feel as if it’s never going to finish, and no one (including me) will want to read it. I have to remind myself that there is more for the characters to say, so just write the damn story. Good or bad, get it done.

I’ve managed to get off topic, a little – sorta – kinda. Oh well, when you’re working with a Pantser, that happens.

The point of this article – listen to your characters. They have really good ideas. In fact, they know how to tell the story better than we do. I figured out a long time ago, I’m merely the conduit for the story to be told – by the characters. I don’t govern the tale any more than I can stem the tide, or leash the wind. Rather than trying to bend things to your will, allow yourself to listen. The results will surprise you, often in a really good way.

© 2018 Dellani Oakes

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Chaos in a Teacup – Part 5

dellani photo dark redIdeas are like opinions. Everyone has one. Some are good, some aren’t. It’s really up to the individual to judge that for him/herself. With authors, this is reflected in our approaches to writing our stories.

How-to-Write authors frequently advocate only one style of writing – The Planner Style. To wit, authors must have a plot outline from start to finish. They must know beginning, middle, climax and ending before putting one word on paper.

If they’re really going to do it up right, they have their characters named, described and have backstories for them all. Their setting is fixed in stone, the timeline, story arc, et cetera….

These books will also espouse that this is THE ONLY WAY to write. (Laughably untrue, but we allow these folks to have this delusion) Since I have several author friends who adhere to this way of writing, I applaud it, but I’m here to tell you, it’s not THE ONLY WAY to write. It is ONE WAY to write.

These folks, often called Planners, are the organized end of the spectrum. Many of them have science and mathematical backgrounds. Their minds are more analytical, and the orderliness of an outline makes them comfortable. Again, I don’t disrespect this approach, I just know it’s not for me.

There are a few who take this a step, or two, further. They plot on a big white board. I know of one who has devoted a wall of her office to plotting with color coded index cards or post-it notes. (Mind officially boggled) I’m glad it works for her. That idea makes me flee in panic. Again, not for me.

I fall into the next category, the Pantser. Derived from the term: …by the seat of my pants… it’s a very accurate (or perhaps slightly inaccurate) way to describe this far less organized approach.

How do Pantsers begin their stories? Well, it varies, but mostly we pluck an idea from the ether, sit at the keyboard (or with a notebook, or perhaps narrating software) and we go for it.

There is no outline. There is usually no idea where the story will go, how it will end, or even who our characters are. Sometimes, we have a loose notion of where we might, possibly, like the story to go. That usually gets swept away the second a character walks onto the page. Those guys have a mind of their own, and they take off running. I just grab on and struggle to keep up.

Pantsers don’t do a story arc. We don’t know who our characters are. Outline? Pfft! We don’t need no stinking outline! Of the authors I’ve interviewed, it seems the more of them use this approach than the more organized Planner method. We might not be as neat and tidy, but we’re still cranking out books, so this method must be viable, at least for some of us.

The final category is an interesting blend of both. Dubbed Plantsers, this style blends the organization of Planners with the more organic Pantser approach. These authors take a bit from here, a smidgen from there, and make it their own. (I, very occasionally, fall into this category.) My planning may be in the form of post-it notes stuck to character sheet, but it works for me.

Plantsers usually have a loose outline, but respect the fact that it will change during the story. They often have a general idea of plot climax, story arc and all those things that Planners love. Once in awhile, they know their characters going in. If it’s a sunny day, they also know their names, descriptions and other basic facts. This may, or may not, include a character sketch.

All those organizational bits aside, Plantsers recognize that characters are like loose canons, and they will occasionally misfire, or go on a rampage (of sorts), throwing off the reins of the author’s control, to tangle themselves in something else. They understand that outlines are written in the sand, not in stone, and are, therefore, variable. Once in awhile, they may gain the anticipated ending, but they are willing to allow their characters to take the lead.

However an author approaches the craft, there are a few things that ALL AUTHORS MUST ADHERE TO. These aren’t variable or negotiable, so pay attention:

Write well.

Edit well.

Don’t ramble.

Have your characters sound as different as they are.

Give a satisfying ending.

Edit again.

Use good grammar.

Tell a good story.

Edit another time.

Edit some more.


Whether you outline or not, a good story is the goal.

© 2018 Dellani Oakes

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Chaos in a Teacup – Part 4

dellani photo dark redIf there’s one thing I’ve discovered, after interviewing dozens of authors, it’s that we don’t all write the same way. Our methods are as individual as we are. What works for me, won’t work for others. What this friend, or that, uses to organize, won’t mean anything to me. That’s okay. Take what works for you, and run with it.

That being said, allow me to list a few author types:

Those who type. As the name implies, these are the folks who sit down at the computer (or possibly the typewriter) and compose at the keyboard.

Those who write by hand. Some of us like the feel of pen (or pencil) and paper. Many use the typing process as an initial editing phase.

Those who narrate. I’ve tried the Digital Dragon software. While I liked it, it didn’t like me, much. I used names it didn’t understand, and apparently I don’t enunciate as well as I thought. However, it’s a handy tool.

There are, of course, combinations and variations, but these are the basic categories I’ve most often encountered.

For those who type or narrate, this isn’t as important. However, for those who write by hand, stay tuned.

On occasion, like when I have a doctor’s appointment, I don’t want to lose that time – particularly if I’m in the middle of a story. I’m old school, in some respects. I will take a notebook and pen with me to the appointment, and write while I wait. Since some of my doctors make me wait quite awhile, I have plenty of time to work on different stories.

However, when I’ve taken the story home and typed it out, I want to do something else with those pages. I used to keep the notebooks all stacked up, but the spirals tangle, and they’re bulky. If I tear out the pages, they can get lost, mixed up, or thrown out. That’s where an accordion file comes in handy. I take the loose pages, and drop them in one of the pockets.

Don’t for one second think that’s the only step in the process – wrong, wrong, wrong! I might have to go back and reference something that I cut out of the typed manuscript. Usually, I do this on purpose, but other times, I miss a line or so when I’m transcribing. If I had to dig through all the handwritten pages, with no hints or clues, I’d be at it all day.

Instead, I write the page number, date and story title at the top of each page. If it’s a long title, I scribble enough to give me a clue. Sometimes, that’s just the main character’s name. As I transcribe, I put a big check mark on the right hand side of the page, so I can see it easily when I flip through. I take all the pages and either staple, or clip, the pages together. Then, I drop them into the accordion file.

This sounds so simple and logical, but it took me a long time to think of it. I have a very steep learning curve, and I’m kinda slow on the uptake. Once I figure a system out, I just have to stick to it. That’s the key to it all. Make your system, and use it. What good is a method of approach, if you don’t implement it?

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still lose things. I’ve got a story that I’ve been working on for over a year, mostly written by hand. I only seem to work on it when I go to the doctor. Unfortunately, I think I filed it before I finished typing it. I have a memory of tearing it out of the spiral (since it had only a couple pages left in it) and trimming the tattered edge off. (I only buy the perforated page notebooks) After that, I’m not sure where it went. I must have gotten interrupted, and moved it off the desk before it was done. This will mean a file dive, but I’m not afraid, because I have a system – ish. I won’t say it’s foolproof, for I don’t label the pockets of the files. I tried doing this, but since things change around a lot, it becomes tiresome to keep fixing labels. Since the pages are marked, it’s just a matter of taking the time to look. I think I have a loose leaf notebook with the untyped stuff in it, but can’t confirm that with any accuracy, so we’ll table that…. I have, on occasion, tried that, only I manage to lose the notebooks under other stuff. (If you saw my office, you would understand. No, I shall not be posting pictures.)

As you can see from the picture, below, this is how my handwritten pages look. The date and title in the upper right corner, the big check mark further down. This is the story I work on at the doctor’s office. The full title is Tree Line Avengers, but the abbreviated title works just fine. If I’m writing a lot, I simply call it Tree. (Please excuse my penmanship.)

Treeline Avengers sample page 001

I used to number pages per writing date, for example: this page started a 15 page session. The next time I sat down to write, it was only 3. I numbered the pages with the date, numbering per writing session 1 – 15 and 1 – 3.

However, after I started a novel at my daughter’s in July, and continued hand writing until it was finished, I stopped doing that, and numbered consecutively. I’ve kept up with this practice. Overall, easier than the other method. That particular book, I wrote out longhand and transcribed. It took a really long time to type it all up, since it was over 200 pages hand written! Normally, I won’t do that, but the story seemed to pour forth, and I was afraid to stop the flow of narrative by typing out what I’d already written. Instead, I finished the story, then went back and typed it.

Since I type quickly, and can finish a novel in a matter of days, I rarely employ this method. It’s much slower, and transcribing plays hell with my vertigo. For this particular book, it worked, so I’m not complaining.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, because that’s so untrue. However, I have a few simple, inexpensive things, which I do to keep myself a little better organized. As I have more ideas, I shall add articles to my Chaos in a Teacup series.

Feel free to leave messages and tell me how you organize yourself. If my ideas work for you, please let me know!

© 2017 Dellani Oakes

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