Turning Real Life into Unreal Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

Finding your material in the real world doesn’t mean finding only realist ideas. Science-fiction prophets, fantasy wizards, and genre-bending literary writers can benefit just as much from real-world inputs as slice-of-life literary realists. Perhaps even more.

One of my favorite examples of this is Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9. It’s a movie with aliens, futuristic weapons, a mech suit, and a mysterious gene-editing fluid. What makes the idea unique is its approach to the aliens: they aren’t visitors, they’re refugees, and the government sets them up in camps and treats them like refugees. So the usual sci-fi question “aliens come to Earth: will they kill us?” is reversed: “aliens come to Earth: will we kill them?”

Blomkamp’s idea didn’t come from space. It came from the news—specifically, from interviews with South Africans about an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. That link to a real world idea didn’t clip District 9’s wings. Instead, it gave the movie an intense dramatic resonance. Some clips from those interviews even made it into the movie.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is arguably the most imaginative novel series of our time. He details his inspiration and writing process here but here’s the short version: part of the idea came from a strange dream he had; part came from his reaction to the BP Gulf Oil Spill; the other part, the all important setting, came from walks he took through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and the abandoned lighthouse there.

There’s no greater argument for looking to the real world for inspiration. It doesn’t limit you to realist stories. It can spark your wildest imaginings, while at the same time anchoring them to the themes that speak to us. This is what we will be looking at in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!

Ideas that Work: Resonant Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

What if blindness was contagious? What if everyone rode unicycles instead of bicycles? What if snow glowed in the dark? What if humans became unable to conceive children?

Most great ideas start with a “what if?”--but not all what-ifs are equal. Two of the ideas above are resonant, evocative. Two are not. Unicycle-world is quirky. There’s some magic to a world where snow glows. But neither is likely to strum a sympathetic chord within us. Neither is it tied to larger concerns and themes.

That’s what resonance is: the prolonging of a sound, the stretching of it. The way one frequency is tied to another.

Contagious blindness, the premise behind Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s Blindness, is connected to disaster and illness, to the idea of contagion, and the various metaphorical meanings of blindness.

The end of human conception resonates as well. Connected ideas: survival, fragility, sterility. Bonding and lack of bonding. Hope, or the end of it. Life and self-preservation. (This idea formed the basis for the book The Children of Men and its film adaptation).

Resonant ideas are a writer’s lifeblood. Always be on the lookout for them.

Five years ago, I listened to an interview with a pianist about playing music designed to be nearly impossible to play. I immediately thought “What if someone wrote music designed to actually be impossible to play?” Impossibility. Challenge. Composing. Performing. The difficulties and impossibilities of living any life.

It would be three years before I found the right form for that story, but it was on my mind the whole time. The idea hummed against other ideas.

When an idea does that, it means there is a story to be written, and that is what we will be looking at in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!

Zap, Pow, Bam: On Writing Flash Non/Fiction, by WWD Instructor Cara Benson

Zap, Pow, Bam!

Those words exploded on the screen of my youth (and maybe yours, too) during the famously cheesy fight scenes in the Batman TV series. I loved them. Their primal colors and expanding letters syncing with horn blares, punctuating the show with such onomatopoetic pleasure – who could resist? It was the psychedelic 60’s on the heels of the afrofuturism that began in the 50’s, and the art and streets were in full rebellion against, well, you name it.

This is an oversimplification, of course, times and people being what they are — complicated and variable. Besides, I didn’t know any of that then. Heck, I wasn’t even born when the episode at the bottom of this post first aired. But I am looking back on those scenes, overlaying them with colorized scrims of meaning for myself.

Why am I doing this? Because I’ve been ruminating on small packages of words that convey a lot with a little. In a word, I’m thinking about FLASH. Also known as sudden, micro, mini, prose poem and hybrid, flash pieces are writing of up to about 1500 words. We might think of them as works that make their own small screens and then fill them. My first book, (made), is a concatenated collection of such writing. Bhanu Kapil called a it “magical dictionary….It’s not trajectory. It’s not narrative. It’s vibration.” (Thanks, Bhanu!)

In these shorter works, the words do extra work. They do vibrate together. And so we must pay extra attention to how they are fitting together. And yet, we can also shoot out of the cannon without worrying we will fall to the ground before hitting our target because we do not have to go as far as we do in the short story or essay or novella or, god forbid, the book. So much possibility in brevity! Which isn’t to say that we need to think of truncating our expression; hardly. We can think of it as an explosion onto the page.

That’s one way, anyway. I also adore flash that sneaks up on me. Or quietly and kaleidoscopically turns around its subject creating prisms on the walls in the room in which I’m reading. There are so many modes for making in this form. I’m back to working on a few of them of late as helpmates to the multimedia novel I’ve been writing for a handful of years now. They serve to give me a sense of completion while I spend the majority of my days with the sense of leaving everything unfinished each time I shut down my computer.

And so I decided to share my process. To that end, I’ve created a Flash Writing workshop for Writing Workshops Dallas. Come write with me! You can respond in fiction or CNF (creative non-fiction). It’s online so you can join in from anywhere. We will read, write, critique, and discuss these gems and also cover avenues for publishing. A one-on-one consultation with me on your work is included.

All the details are here at Writing Workshops Dallas, which starts on April 9th.

GUEST BLOG POST by Cara Benson originally appeared on her Blog.