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…

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!

The Beach

When Paul arrived, he found David in the middle of another staring contest with his computer. David’s brow furrowed in focused concentration, but the monitor’s cold, white eye simply refused to blink. “Updating your website?” Paul said finally.

David jolted and turned in his chair. “Oh! It’s you… No, I haven’t updated my website in months. I certainly want to.” He shook his hand at the blank screen before him. “I’ve been trying to write all day. But every time my fingers touch the keyboard, I think… what’s the point? I’m never going to sell one of my stories. I’ll be lucky if they even get read.”

Paul looked down at his friend and smiled. “Let me tell you a story for a change… Read more…

So someone took a book from me…

So someone took a book from me. This wasn’t like the time I fell asleep on the bus and someone swiped my copy of “Hitchhiker’s Guide”, oh no. This was much, much worse.

Every once in a while, I Google the titles of my stories, just to see if anyone is talking about my work. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t.) I was doing this the other day, and I decided to search for the name of a creepy poem I wrote, “Holding Back The Dark”. I found out someone had plagiarized it.

Now, people have plagiarized my work before. I’ve even had students in writing classes ask me if they submit my stories for their homework assignments. (No, you can’t.) If the plagiarist is posting to a site they don’t own, like a Tumblr, it’s usually pretty easy to get my work removed. But this guy went a bit farther than just signing his name to something I wrote. He took a whole stack of my stories, put them together in a novel-length book, and started selling it.

This book was on Amazon. It was on Smashwords. Like herpes at Burning Man, it was all over the place. I started sending out emails asking for it to be taken down, with links to the original on my site. I don’t date the posts on my website, mostly because that would make it obvious how lazy I am about posting updates, but there are comments on “Holding Back The Dark” and other stories with dates more than a year earlier than the stolen book was published. Read more…

The wikiHow Game

Mystery writing tips

Mystery writing tips

I spent my spare time in college writing a mystery novel called “They Ate the Waitress?” Before that, I had only ever written science fiction, horror, and weird things like that. Fantasy or science fiction stories can be almost anything you like. However, as I discovered, detective story readers have certain expectations about what makes a good mystery. Deviate from them too much, and your readers may give up before your detective even finds the first clue. Whether want to write a straight whodunit or a mixed genre mystery, here are some ideas that might help you get started… Read more…

1,001 Story Ideas – Science Fiction, Horror, And Fantasy Story Starters You Can Use!

Science Fiction Story Ideas – Part 3: Strange Changes

Science Fiction Story Ideas

Physical Changes

Body Swapping

  • A scientist drags his aging, abusive wife into his lab and turns her into his ex, his highschool sweetheart
  • The world’s newest billionaire is the CEO of Rent-a-Body, a service that allows people to become someone else for a day.
  • The latest diet craze involves kidnapping skinny people and switching your brain with theirs.
  • A talented, female surgeon is assigned her first sex reassignment surgery. She botches the operation and is sued. The judge declares that, as she cost her patient his chance at a female body, she will have to sacrifice her own to him.
  • Read more…

Staying Excited Seven ways to keep up your enthusiasm for writing

Staying Excited

Seven ways to keep up your enthusiasm for writing

W

hen you’re working on a longer story or a novel, one of the hardest things you’ll face is just keeping up your enthusiasm. Writing can be hard work, sure, but it’s important to make sure you’re having fun. Remember: if you’re bored, so are your readers.

So what do you do?

1. Be lazy

You can use laziness to your advantage.

First, make a to-do list. The list should be realistic, with projects you can see yourself actually doing. The list should be more complicated and more time consuming than your writing project.

Next, sit down to write. Tell yourself, “As long as I’m writing, I don’t have to clean house / work out / mow the lawn / empty the cat box.”

Remember, as long as you’re writing, you’re not working. You’re avoiding work! Any amount of work seems easy when it’s not the work that you’re supposed to be doing at the time.

Read more…

Science Fiction Dialog

Science Fiction Dialog

Some ideas, tips, and suggestions about genre dialog

G

enre literature can create some special challenges for writers. For those interested in writing science fiction stories, here are some tips for writing great sci-fi dialog.

Robots

First, you should almost never have dialog between two robots. Why? If you have a group of robot soldiers or security guards, they would not talk to each other out loud. Just like real soldiers and security guards, they would need to be able to communicate at a distance. They would communicate silently via radio waves, Wi-Fi, or other ways. If a group of robots can do that, there would be no need to use a speech synthesizer.

How do you show that two robots are communicating without words? The same way you might discuss a remote control “talking” to a television. Avoid the temptation to anthropomorphize robots, and just use general description.

However, a robot might speak out loud to another robot if they had vastly different programming, incompatible wireless hardware, and so on. Spoken words would be a kind of “international language” for robots, like their own Esperanto.

When your robots are speaking out loud, your first concern should be this: what is the robot’s function? While it would be an advantage for any machine to be able to learn, most robots would be on the level of “smart appliances.” Only a few specific functions would warrant highly advanced, human-like intelligence.
Read more…