Why Every Writer Needs a BOB File

Most, if not all, writers keep a file of story ideas.But what about all those little ideas that aren’t plots or story hooks? This is where the Bits of Business (BOB) File comes in.

The bits of business in your BOB File are too small to be the centerpiece of a story. Rather, they are interesting details that might make some future story more interesting, entertaining, vivid, or true-to-life. A BOB File can include any story detail that pops into your head and feels worth saving, things like:

  • Dialog – Jokes, arguments, secret confessions
  • Names – Characters, restaurants, stores, scifi gadgets
  • Descriptions – A character’s appearance or mannerisms, interesting objects, the physical environment
  • Locations – Interesting towns, weird-looking buildings, places that give you the creeps
  • Objects – Fun gadgets, interesting tools, character-defining personal possessions
  • Foundations – The larger meaning behind a plot, character motivations, subtext, metaphors

If you are working on a story and struggling to come up with a character’s name, appearance, or other details, you can search your BOB File for something to use, even if it’s just a temporary placeholder. Having a collection of story details at the ready will help you avoid getting stuck and wasting valuable writing time. Read more…

The Doom Tapes

Midnight. The sky was streaked with green. Doctor McFadden limped across the Seacoast College campus, his silver-tipped cane tapping on the sidewalk. His other hand clutched a crumpled flyer torn from a bulletin board. “Northern Lights Party! Drink, Dance, And Watch The Sky!” Damn kids had no idea what was really happening. Surrounded by knowledge and still so ignorant.

Conversation and laughter spilled down the hill between the men’s and women’s dorms. A dozen students were sprawled on blankets in the grass, drinking cans of cheap beer and seeing who could throw their empties in the recycling bag from the farthest away. A portable grill shaped like a hubcap filled the air with the smell of charred hot dogs. A few members of the campus AV club were filming the strangeness in the sky with a video drone, a tiny handheld camera, and the history department’s ancient VHS camcorder.

A dreadlocked woman in an Army surplus jacket pointed at the strange, green glow. “This is so cool! I didn’t even know you could see the northern lights in San Francisco!”

“This is a geomagnetic storm!” McFadden called out. The students turned to see a white-haired man in a cardigan jabbing a cane at the sky. “An energy field from space is interacting with the earth’s magnetosphere. Usually, we can see them coming, warn people, give them a chance to get ready in case it knocks out telecommunications satellites. But this came out of nowhere.” Read more…

The cured thief

A thief tells his wife, “You don’t have to worry about me being arrested anymore! The doctor gave me a medication that will completely cure my criminal impulses!”

However, the next night, he is arrested for stealing a couple of iPads and a pizza. His wife comes to bail him out of prison and says, “I thought you were cured! Did you forget to take your medication?”

The thief says, “No, I did exactly what the doctor said! ‘Take two tablets with meals’!”

Signs your boyfriend might be bad in bed

  • You tell him you’re into S&M, so he makes you spaghetti and meatballs.
  • You ask him to bring protection, and he shows up with shin guards and a welder’s mask.
  • He asks if you like being on top, and then shows you his bunk bed.
  • His favorite bedroom role playing game is “Naughty French Maid and Bulbasaur.” (And he’s the maid.)
  • In the heat of passion, he accidentally says someone else’s name. “Someone else! Someone else!”
  • His favorite positions are missionary, doggy style, half nelson, and sleeper hold.
  • Too many hand puppets.
  • You wanted him to cover you in whipped cream, but he’s spraying his 5th can and hasn’t even started licking yet.
  • His sex tapes are too artsy. The last one included a 45 minute dream sequence that was barely even relevant to the plot.
  • He’s a premature ejaculator. Way premature. Like the day before.


Choices are interesting. You can “frame” a choice in such a way that people never realize how limited their options really are.  When I was a little kid, and my mom was making dinner, she would pick out the main course, and then ask me what I wanted for a side dish.  “I’m making chicken. What should we have with it – broccoli or peas?”

Asking me about the side dish made me happy, because I felt like I was making a meaningful choice, and that I had control over what I had to eat. But framing the question that way was actually designed to limit my choices without me realizing it.  I never thought about the fact that the main course had already been decided, or that I couldn’t have fruit on the side instead, or that maybe I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want any food at all. All I cared about was making this one simple, restricted choice.

But I was just a child.  An adult would never fall for such a simple trick.

…Anyway, who did you vote for?

Your Freedumb to Vote

Tomorrow is Election Day, but you still might be wondering why you should go out and vote. Why should you drive to your polling place when you could stay home and do something that might actually improve your life, like reading a book or shaving your back hair? Well, I’ll tell you why! Democracy is the fuel that keeps the Indy 500 of freedom rolling! America needs your vote to keep going in its endless circle.

You don’t have to be “right” to have the right to vote! For every person who researches the issues, there are two who vote by picking the candidate with the nicest eyebrows. And their vote counts just as much as yours. Isn’t democracy great?

Before you can cut someone’s fingernails, you have to spend 2,000 hours in cosmetology school and apply for a manicurist’s license. To select the people who run the country, all you need to do is stand in a voting booth long enough to figure out which button is “Elephant” and which one is “Donkey.” Why limit voting to people who are actually informed? Limiting voting to smart people would be like limiting driving to sober people.

Voting is all about choices! We have 31 flavors of ice cream, 1,200 channels on the TV and 47,000 blogs about cute cat pictures, but we only need two political parties. Everyone in America is a Democrat or a Republican, just like everyone is named Dave or David.

Majorities rule! To be good at sports, you have to be strong or talented. But voting is different! The only thing you need is to have more people on your team. As long as 50.00001% of America is on your side, you’re a winner! It’s like picking a toothpaste because four out of five dentists recommended it. Only the dentists don’t have degrees, or licenses, and they think “toothpaste” is how you fix broken dentures.

Voting is magic! No money for school or childcare? Let the taxpayers foot the bill! Voting allows you to empty other people’s wallets without the hassle of buying a ski mask. Voting
gets you a little cash. It gets politicians millions of dollars, power, fame, and their names written on the side of buildings. But hey, enjoy your government cheese!

Politicians need your vote to do their jobs! Without your vote, politicians wouldn’t have access to the IRS, the CIA, or the ATF. (That’s the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which sounds like a store but doesn’t actually sell anything.)

Remember, politicians are like children. They need you to sign a “permission slip” so they can tax you, arrest you, or blow up foreigners. Voting means that, whoever wins, whatever the next president does, you asked for it.

The Psychic Cat

Ralph the Dog pays a visit to the world’s greatest psychic, who happens to be a cat. Ralph says, “Oh, great and mighty Psychic Cat, what do you see in my future?”

The Psychic Cat rubbed her crystal yarn ball and said, “I see… I see… You will go to the vet, where you will… Oh no! …Ahem. I mean, you will go to the park! Where you will fetch sticks! Yes, there will be lots of sticks!”

Ralph said, “And balls?”

The Psychic Cat said, “No, not so much.”

Why Writing is Harder Than Running a 5k

Whether you want to write a novel or run a marathon, the first step is forming good habits. Habits are the steps we climb to achievement. The more time we spend building and practicing good habits, the more we can accomplish, and the more rewarding our lives will be.

Earlier this year, I joined a gym. At first, it was tough to motivate myself to go regularly, but I quickly started enjoying working out and missing the gym when I was too busy to exercise. I was proud of myself for making these changes, but the experience also made me pretty confused. The exercise habit clicked right away, but building good writing habits took me years of struggle. Why did I find writing so much harder than exercise? Why was it easier for me to finish a 5k run than 5k words? Read more…

An ode to Harry Baals

All this election talk has got me to thinking about the only politician I’ve ever really liked. Not because of his policies or personal politics. In fact, I wasn’t even alive when he was in office. As you can see by the title up there, I’m talking about the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Harry Baals.

A while back, Fort Wayne got in the national news when the townsfolk voted to name the new government center building after Mayor Baals, but the vote was overruled. I guess the local politicians didn’t want a testicle joke engraved on the front of their workplace. That story aside, my favorite thing about Harry is this: everyone else in his family pronounced their last name like “Bales”, but he didn’t. He insisted it was “Balls.” He easily could have been “Harold Bales”, but he chose to be “Harry Balls.” It is that decision and the attitude it represents that inspired me to write this little poem… Read more…

How to Steal Other People’s Ideas (Without Committing Plagiarism)

Have you ever read a story or watched a film and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” When you see a great idea put into action, it can make you jealous, or even tempted to take it and use it as your own. But is that ethical? Where do you draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism?

You should only ever use someone else’s story as the starting point to your own creative journey. Don’t ask yourself “How can I rewrite Ender’s Game?” Instead, ask yourself “What are my favorite parts of the overall Ender’s Game story, and how can I adapt them to fit my own ideas and writing style?”

The more inspiration you take from another story, the more details you have to change in your own story to make it original. If you write about a high school student and a white-haired scientist traveling through time to the 1950s, people might say you are just ripping off by Back to the Future. However, if your student is named Becky, your scientist is named Professor Edith, and they visit 1950s Mexico in their time-traveling hot air balloon, your story will probably end up being pretty original.

When you are inspired by a story, pick out the details you like, break them down into smaller elements, and then start tweaking and changing things until your new story becomes something unique. The less you borrow, and the more creative steps you take away from the source, the more original your final outcome will be.

Again, take Back to the Future as an example. Let’s start with a borrowed scene and use it to create something original. One of my favorite scenes in the film is Marty’s first meeting with 1955 Doc. After Marty accidentally travels back in time, he finds Doc’s mansion and bangs on the door. Doc forces Marty to help him test a mind reading helmet. Finally, Marty tells Doc that he has traveled there from the future in a time machine he invented in 1985.

We have several elements in this scene that we can change to make a new story:

  • Characters – White-haired scientist Doc Brown and high school student Marty McFly
  • Conflict – Marty is stuck in the past and has to convince Doc to help him get back to the future
  • Location – The Brown Family mansion in 1955 California
  • Main science fiction gadget – A time-traveling DeLorean
  • Secondary science fiction gadget – A mind reading helmet

For our new story, let’s make our Marty in his early thirties. Our Marty is working as a research scientist for a large university in Seattle, but all of his projects are failures, just one dead end after another. He is on the verge of losing his job and willing to do anything to keep it. He discovers that a graduate student, Rachel “Doc” Brown, has developed a device that can open a portal through time. He decides to steal her device and claim her research as his own.

He sets a fire in Rachel’s lab to destroy any evidence of the theft. The portal device explodes, and he is accidentally hurled into the future. Unable to return home, he decides to find Doc and beg for her help.

When he arrives at her house, there is a teenage girl standing at the door. Aiming a ray gun, she says, “My name is Emma. Twenty years ago, you stole my mother’s research and her legacy. I’ve been waiting my entire life for you to show up.” She fires the weapon, shrinking Marty down to six inches tall. She grabs him and forces him into a mason jar. “I’m taking you to the university. You will tell everyone that you’re a thief, or I’ll feed you to my cat.”

Our new story is off to a great start. It’s a time travel story with a confrontation scene, but just about everything else is different. All we have to do is change the characters’ names, and we will have an original piece of writing.

We don’t have to stick with scenes or plots. We could follow similar steps to borrow a character and turn it into something original. Let’s start with a character everyone knows: Superman. What are the individual elements that make Superman who he is?

  • Alien from another planet
  • Secret identity pretending to be a human
  • Home world destroyed
  • Gets super powers from the sun
  • Super strength
  • Flight
  • Invincibility
  • Can only be killed by Kryptonite
  • Patriotic, good-hearted farm boy

The more of these elements we change, the more original our character will be. Let’s make our Superman an adventurer from another dimension. Rather than getting super powers from the sun, his powers come from his world’s advanced technology: an indestructible force field, a jet pack, and gloves that allow him to manipulate magnetic waves and lift metal objects. His weakness is water. Water can short circuit his force field and make him temporarily vulnerable, or flood his jet pack’s engine and make him unable to fly. And we’ll make him a good-hearted city boy. The only thing left is to change the name, and we’ll have an entirely original character inspired by, but very different from, Superman.

Another great way to turn old ideas into something original is to gather elements from more than one source and mix them together. Once more, we will start with Back to the Future. Let’s forget about time travel and just take the element of a flying car. Our second source will be the movie The Evil Dead. If you’ve never seen it, all you need to know is this: a group of college students staying in a cabin in the woods find a magic book. The spells in the book summon evil spirits, who then set to work possessing the students.

In our new story, a group of UFO researchers head out to the woods to investigate some recent sightings of a small, black craft. As they search for evidence, they are attacked by a horde of zombies who chase them through the trees, shouting taunts and threats.  Suddenly, two lights appear in the sky. It’s not a UFO. It’s the headlights of a flying hearse. The passenger’s side door opens and a rope ladder drops down. The researchers climb up, barely escaping the zombies. The driver is Simon, an inventor and bounty hunter. He has been searching the woods for a fugitive necromancer. Apparently he did not find him soon enough. The necromancer has already summoned a horde of evil spirits and is using them to control an army of the dead.

Again, we have taken elements from other people’s stories but produced something original. (Note that I didn’t say something good.)

Finally, I’ll note that you you should never publicly discuss borrowing ideas that are still under copyright. Even though you cannot technically copyright an idea, and there is nothing unethical about using an idea as a starting point to create something completely different, there are still plenty of litigious jerks out there. So keep your sources to yourself.

Good luck, and keep writing!