Way back in 1998 I had a job where I had to fly to Kansas City each week and work, then come back home to Raleigh, NC for the weekend. There were no direct flights either way, but the layovers were always the same. They were not the same in each direction, for some reason, but each direction’s layover was the same week after week. It all became pretty routine after a while, well except for this one time there was a thing that happened…
I boarded the plane as usual and took my seat. Most times there were empty seats and people could (and did) move around a bit once the plane was loaded and we knew the seats were empty for the flight. After taking my seat, a window seat, a couple came on board with their young son. I could overhear their conversation a couple of rows ahead of me. Apparently they had not bought their tickets in a manner that their son’s seat was with theirs.
The couple took their seats and asked the other person on that row, who was already seated, if he minded switching seats so their son could sit with them. He didn’t mind, but he didn’t exactly switch seats either, instead he just sat on the next row. As you might expect, soon the person came aboard who’s seat he had taken and after a brief explanation that person also took a random different seat instead. This all continued until the plane was almost full.
Literally the last person on the plane was a slightly older than middle-aged woman. I mention that not to disparage her in any way, but just to give some weight to the story. As she continued down the aisle looking for her seat, my brain started to churn a potential what-if scenario… and as fate would have it, she approached the aisle where I had the window seat, and our row was already full. She told the man in her seat that he was in fact in her seat. He asked if she minded sitting somewhere else. She was adamant, she had requested an outside-aisle seat and that was hers.
Seeing there was a problem, a flight attendant approached and asked about the problem. The woman said this man was in her seat. Realizing that the “can you sit elsewhere” idea had already been floated, and after verifying the seat on the lady’s ticket. She asked the man where his seat was and why he was not in it. He, of course, explained that someone else was already in his seat when he had boarded the plane. I’m sure you can see where this was headed…
A few other people around me started cluing in to the mess that was about to unravel as the flight attendant was now trying to reverse the cavalcade of randomly mis-seated people that started when the couple wanted to switch seats to have their son sit with them. I don’t remember exactly how it all settled, but I remember the couple and their son stayed together and the woman got her aisle seat on my row. I also remember a lot of people being mad at that woman.
During the flight, I explained to the woman what had happened… I told her that I completely understood her wanting the seat she had specifically requested and that the other problem could have been solved in two different ways. Either that couple should have bought their tickets together in the first place or that first seat-switch should have been a literal switch rather than the cascading thing of everyone taking a random seat that trickled down eventually to her not being in hers.
As it happens, she came across as a little gruff, but the truth was she requested that seat because she had difficulty getting up and down and needed the aisle seat to be able to do so comfortably. I just remember the comedy in my mind that I enjoyed first as I knew instinctively how that first seat switch might be a problem if the plane filled to capacity, and then again later as it all came to fruition and the poor flight attendant had to try and unravel it all as each thread she pulled uncovered another passenger in the wrong seat!
When I was a kid we lived for about seven years in a trailer park. The streets of this particular trailer park wound themselves inside a heavily wooded area, so there was lots of forest in which to get lost and explore. You could also find lots of evidence of other people having been in and around these woods. There were lots of well traveled paths all over, and there was a trash-pile in one part of the woods not too far behind where we lived. As a kid, somehow other people’s trash is interesting. Looking back on it now, I really miss the enthusiasm I had for the simple things.
On this particular day I was exploring the woods alone. Rummaging through the trash I stumbled upon some old cans of house paint. These were small cans, so I was able to carry several of them back to the area just behind my trailer to play. As I look back on this, I do not know exactly what was fun about cans of paint as I didn’t have anything with which to paint or anything upon which to apply the paint.
I remember playing with the cans for a while, until I finally managed to open one. A nice teal colored paint was inside that one. Before long I had managed to get it all over my hands and arms. At this time I was not aware of having spread the paint elsewhere. I did realize soon enough, though, that I could not simply wipe off the paint and I became concerned. I did not know what to do, and I figured my parents would think me truly stupid for having gotten into the paint… so I rode my bike around the neighborhood for a while. I probably did not help myself by doing this, since it meant the paint I had on me just had more time to soak into my skin and dry.
Eventually I did go home, because I couldn’t realistically stay away forever. I think they were disappointed and a little concerned, but I looked humorous enough with paint all over my hands and arms… and though I could not see it, my face as well. We then spent what seemed like hours with some rags and some gasoline rubbing the paint off of my skin. This was not fun. Once the paint was off, I then had to spend time in the shower and bath to get the gasoline off lest I trade one kind of poison for another!
This was not an adventure I repeated again… but for a brief time, I was Smurftacularly blue. Remember, Papa Smurf says don’t smurf with paint or you might smurf yourself blue in the face.
Even at pre-school age I had unusually free roam of the neighborhood in which we lived. Maybe it was the naivety of the 1970s, but I was without adult supervision a lot more than it seems in retrospect was probably prudent. On this particular occasion I wasn’t alone, but with a group of similarly aged friends. We were all five or six years of age, tops.
I was at a neighbor’s house, maybe eight houses down the road from my house in the subdivision where we lived. So, I guess technically we were in someone’s yard and theoretically could have been observed by that kid’s parents. I do not believe that we really were given what ultimately happened.
This house had one of those u-turn driveways, paved, that curved in front of the house. To the left of the house was a forest and, as I was soon to find out, a creek. Angled between the forest and the left side of the house was a bike path. On this particular day my friends and I were riding our bikes from the right side of the u-turn driveway, following that turn as it passed the front of the house, taking the sharp turn right onto the bike path, and then sliding to a stop in the dirt. I can’t actually remember why this was something we were doing or why it was fun specifically.
On one of my rides I remember thinking… why do we keep turning onto the bike path? Why not just keep straight and go into the forest. There seemed to be an opening there. So, on my next ride I decided to do just that. In hindsight, I suppose I should have asked someone before blindly going forward. Pedaling as fast as I could, I didn’t take the sharp-right onto the bike path, and instead continued straight.
Here is where I had my Wile E. Coyote moment. As my bike exited the paved driveway and entered the opening into the forest, I realized I was temporarily suspended in mid-air, maybe three to four feet above the surface of the water below. This was where the creek ran up to, and ultimately under, their driveway. I do not know why I did not know this previously, but in that suspended moment I could feel myself hover for what seemed like an eternity before first the bike, and then I quickly thereafter, plunged straight down into the creek.
Somehow, and I do not fully understand this, the bike and I were beside each other in the creek. I’m not sure how this happened. My friends came over to help me climb out of the creek and back onto the driveway. It helped that for some reason there were boards nailed to the side of the ground that held while I climbed them.
The rest of the memory is a blur. I remember being soaking wet. I remember not being hurt. I remember borrowing some clothes from my friend whose house we were all at. I remember my parents coming to get me because my bike was in the creek. I remember coming back at some point with my father and him using a shovel to fish my bike out of the creek.
I don’t remember ever playing with any of those kids again. I do remember being at that house again, though, at some point in the future… and where the creek was, there was now a large pile of variously-sized boards, each with large nails protruding from them. I remember thinking how it was a good thing those were not there that time I had ridden my bike off the edge.
A new semi-regular feature on the blog begins this evening, regaling a strange-but-true tale from my past…
When I was a kid, I had unusually free roam of the neighborhood in which we lived. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but whenever I reflect on my childhood I am amazed at the good fortune that bad things did not happen to me. Back then I thought things were rough, but looking back I realize I often led a charmed life.
One day I was out riding my bicycle. I used to really like riding my bike and I think I liked riding alone more than with friends. So, I was riding by myself and this car pulled to a stop in front of me. The driver rolls down the window and calls to me to come over. I don’t remember responding, but then the person asked, “do you want a puppy?”
I don’t remember how old I was, but I was probably between eight and ten years old, based on things I can remember of the time. Anyway, I remember approaching the car while still straddling my bike… and when I was right beside the car, the driver reached out of his window and handed me a puppy. No sooner than I had taken the puppy in my arms, the driver rolled up the window and drove away.
I had a tough time getting both the puppy and my bicycle home. My parents were not pleased. I don’t think any of us thought of the potential danger of strangers or child abduction, but rather that we already had three dogs at that time and no place in the yard for another. We kept the puppy for a few days but ultimately had to take him to a shelter. He was a good-natured puppy, and would have made a good pet if we didn’t already have too many. I sometimes wonder what happened to him.
As an adult, whenever I think of this experience, I can’t help but think of all the horrible stories I have seen on the news of child abductions that began much like my story. Strangely, this is not the only non-abduction story I have from my childhood, but that will have to wait for another time.
Thus ends the first installment of… A Thing That Happened!
I have long espoused the notion of being prepared to record every idea that pops into my mind. Ideas can come to you any time of the day or night and might have very little to do with what you are actively doing or thinking in that moment. What I don’t always remember to mention is that your dreams can be a powerful source for fresh ideas.
I have always had interesting dreams. Sometimes I remember every detail vividly, other times I retain only parts. Often the details slip away quite quickly as I wake up so I have to be ready to capture those ideas while I can still recall them. Not every dream is interesting, of course, but enough are that it is well worth paying attention.
What I am finding interesting, though, is just as I began this blog my dreams began to align themselves at times in interesting ways with my daily comic strip. Very often I find myself awake after having a vivid dream that is just packed with ideas for stories that I had not thought of previously. Further… I believe I am learning how to intentionally fuel my dreams.
In pursuit of the next idea, I browse the Web and peruse other people’s blogs. I look to Web sites of interest to me and research various things as they pop into my head to consider as source material. I also have lots of personal stories that come into play when I dip into my real life from time to time.
The concept in play here is to fill my mind with as many varied things as I can on any particular day when I am not actively developing a specific story idea. I want to put as many things into my head as I can, and I want to think about various sources of possible inspiration without trying to put anything together in a particular way. I’m just looking to stuff a bunch of semi-random information into my head.
It doesn’t happen that same night… sometimes not even for a couple of nights… but at some point during the week, I find that I am dreaming of people and places and things that I had been thinking about and when I wake up, I try to capture as much of it as I can before it slips away. Some of my best ideas recently have literally come to me in a dream.
Sometimes I feel like I am cheating. I might spend days trying to actively develop a story, working and re-working everything until I’m satisfied. Then, one night I have a vivid dream of a far better idea and in hours the next day have a stronger new story than the one I had worked many times as hard to complete.
As a result, I am recommending everyone do what I have started to do to fuel my creativity. Find some time everyday to devote to random thought. Think of people, places, characters, and things that interest you. Don’t try to consciously connect the dots and put anyone or anything into any particular order. Just let your mind wander to anything and everything of interest to you and let your subconscious do the heavy lifting for you later. I suspect you might be amazed within a week of the new ideas that come to you in your dreams.
For many writers, whether creative or technical, a visit to the Editor seems like a visit to the Principal’s office. It’s easy to see the Editor as someone who tells you how wrong you are or who tries to restrain your creativity. The truth is that a good Editor helps you achieve your vision if you will allow it.
If you are a Technical Writer working for a company, the Editor has many responsibilities. The easy part of an Editor’s job is to enforce corporate standards as well as use of proper grammar and spelling. I say easy not to dismiss the work involved, but because a good Editor will be well-versed in these things and able to suggest corrections fairly quickly. You do not define these rules, but you must work within them, and the Editor is there to assure you do so.
An often overlooked job of the Editor, however, is that of ensuring the writer’s message comes through. The names and actual subject matter are omitted to protect the innocent… but here’s an example of a situation that demonstrates how much an Editor adds to a completed work.
The general process at a place where I worked as a Technical Writer was to complete a couple of drafts of a user’s guide and when it was considered technically accurate, schedule an Editor review before sending the document out for a final review and approval for publication. This meant the Editor was usually seeing a document that I believed was complete, accurate, and hopefully without errors. If I had done my job correctly, I should see few suggestions for change from the Editor.
As an aside, I find working in corporate environments there seem to generally be three categories of Technical Writers in terms of how they apply Editor feedback: 1. Writers who make all suggested corrections without question, 2. Writers who choose to ignore some suggested corrections without discussion, 3. Writers who discuss the feedback with the Editor to be sure they are both on the same page. I consider myself to be the third type.
On one particular occasion, my Editor had considerably marked up a particular procedure for installing a piece of hardware. I read through my original writing and her markup several times and came to the conclusion that I did not know what to do. To put it simply, her suggestions were completely incorrect and were not at all possible given the hardware as I knew it.
So I approached her and explained the situation just as I have here, and I added that while her suggestions were incorrect it was also clear to me that what I wrote was also incorrect. That she could read what I wrote and think what she did was a strong indication that what I had intended to convey was not getting through. I explained to my Editor what I was attempting to convey to the user, and then understanding what I had originally meant, she was better able to help me write what I needed.
I could have ignored her feedback and been wrong… or accepted her initial feedback blindly and also been wrong… but embracing the process and the point of having an Editor made for a stronger procedure in a better document. This is why you need an Editor.
In creative writing, unlike Technical Writing, you get to make more of the rules and can choose an Editor more tuned to the style you intend to write. Everything else I said above still applies, however. Interacting intelligently with your Editor will not just make your writing look good, but it will ensure the story you are intending to create is the one your readers will see when they read your book.
So, don’t view the Editor as some form of punishment. Your Editor is there to ensure you do the best work you are capable of producing. Interact with your Editor as much as possible with regards to feedback so that you both are on the same page. Your readers will thank you for it and you, in turn, should thank your Editor.
Creating a daily strip is a lot different than reading one. Each day I post a new part of an ongoing story, and you see it for the first time. Generally speaking, each story takes place now as of the time of posting whether it reflects a current event, the current season, or just seems to be an event that takes place in non-specific time.
That’s how you see them… but it’s not how I create them.
Many of the stories you see are created out of order. Sometimes even the parts of a story were created out of order or as segments intended for an entirely different plot. I never know when an idea will hit me or what time of year that idea might best take place, so I take notes and make scribbles and build story arcs as they come to me. You don’t want to lose a good idea just because it comes to you at the wrong time of year!
So… I’m building stories out of order, constantly reshuffling the publishing hierarchy, and creating story arcs several months in advance. That takes me to the subject of this post, Halloween in July. As I looked over my completed stories today I realized the timeline of currently complete stories takes me into October. It made me realize that I need to start planning now for holiday-themed posts before I write myself into a corner.
Why is that, you ask?
Well, I’m not going to stop writing today (I hope)… and I know that over the next couple of months I will come up with new ideas that will push other ideas to a different publishing schedule. If I don’t pay attention to the future, I could find myself a few months from now in the middle of an uninterruptible story arc that doesn’t allow a timely Halloween-themed story to be published.
That means today, on the last day of July, I found myself drawing a jack o’lantern and candy canes and holly. You will see none of this for several months, and when you do it will seem timely and appropriate… but maybe you’ll also remember that for me Halloween started in July this year.
So… you have an idea but you don’t know where to start. When you ask others how to start, the typical response is to “just start” which sounds kind of enigmatic. How do you know where to start if you don’t know how to start? Hopefully that will make a little more sense when I am through here.
When you watch a movie, or read a book, or appreciate a painting it seems structured and organized. The ideas flow naturally from one to the next, and that’s what you want to create. You want your idea to be that fluid and expressive, but you’re seeing the end-product. You aren’t seeing where that project began, but rather where it ended.
Most people make the critical mistake of believing that you have to start at the beginning. You don’t. You can start anywhere you like. You can start with the end of your story if you want. Many jokes originate from the punchline, with the setup being developed to reach that goal. If you try to force yourself to start only at a specific place, you will stifle your creativity.
So, you begin by writing or drawing and making sure you capture any idea that you have. Even if you don’t particularly like the idea right now, make a note of it and keep it. Keep everything together and never throw anything away. Even if you read something you wrote and don’t like it, keep that too.
If you continue to work with your ideas in this manner, you will eventually find that the creation seems to take on a life of its own. The characters begin to almost write themselves. The art defines and guides itself. It’s nearly an out-of-body experience where you almost become a ghost-writer for your own idea, and you don’t feel like you are creating anymore but are merely communicating something that has already actually happened.
This is when you discover you have actually started.
You will be able to go back over all the earlier work and help it fit the story you are telling now. Concepts you didn’t know how to use, or didn’t fit smoothly, you can more easily work with them. You might even find places to use those random ideas that never seemed to find a home. Good thing you kept them!
So, begin now… you aren’t creating your final product from the start. Work from the end, or the middle, or flesh out a character. Keep adding to your creation, even if things are out of order. Eventually your ideas will begin to connect themselves, and that’s when you actually get started!
From time to time I will post and try to give a glimpse into the madness behind the madness. The creative process is a strange thing to talk about. Let me start by saying that for me it isn’t really a formal process at all.
I set aside some time to work and see what happens. If I find my mind wandering and nothing is getting done, I walk away for a bit and do something else. I might watch TV or browse the Internet or read something. There’s no point in beating my head against a wall when the ideas are not popping.
When the creativity flows, however, I sit at the computer and write and draw until I empty the well. Sometimes the ideas come faster than I can develop them fully, so I have to switch gears and take notes and make sketches so I don’t lose the best stuff. I can always expand upon a good idea later, so making sure I don’t lose those idea nuggets is the top priority.
Next time I’ll try and discuss how your creative project doesn’t really get started until after you have already begun! Trust me, it will make sense when I explain it…