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!

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…

William and the Clockwork Devil

Something in the dark was breathing. William opened his eyes. Two figures stood at the foot of his bed. Long, thin faces like white knives. The rustle of heavy cloth as black hands reached down for his face. His screams echoed through the house, but there was no one there to hear him. He was alone and helpless.

The figures vanished. Somewhere in the dark, a door opened and slammed shut. The streetlight shone through his window, illuminating an empty room. He climbed out of bed slowly, cautiously, lest a hand reached out from the closet or under the bed. But there was nothing. He flipped the switch on the wall and the lights came on, shining behind their pointed, white shades.

“Just a nightmare. Nothing more… nothing more.”

The morning marked two weeks since his mother’s death. William had completely run out of space in the refrigerator. For some reason, any time a friend or family member heard the news, their first reaction was to bring over food.

“Sorry your mom died. Here’s a casserole.”

“I know it’s hard being nineteen and all alone in the world. Here’s some banana bread.”

“Must have been horrifying to find her swinging from the rafters in the attic. Have some scalloped potatoes.” Read more…

Captain Whistler Goes Down

Loreley had survived storms, fires, and even being shot by cannons, but a bomb was more than she could take. Captain Marshall Whistler pulled ropes until he found the one that unfurled her sails. He rushed to the helm, wrestling with the wheel. The cargo hold was taking on water rapidly, but for the moment, the ice blue clipper ship was still afloat.

Other than the cabin boy, Alex, Marshall was sailing the ship alone. The young lad was brave, and good with a pistol, but he was a newcomer to sailing. There was little he could do to help, so he simply waited, watching silently. Despite his bulky, gray sweater, he was shivering.

“There is an island about a hundred yards to the west,” Marshall called. “Our only chance is to run her aground.” The wind rose and carried the ship across the water. “At least, I think we have a chance,” he thought. “I wish I knew for sure. …I wish I knew much of anything about sailing, really.”

As the island rapidly approached, they knew they were in for a rough landing. Alex wrapped his arms around the mast and closed his eyes.
Read more…

The “No Wizards” Rule

“Let me guess,” Greg said, looking at the petite blonde girl who had just walked into his shop, “a butterfly on your lower back. Am I right?” He was tall, in his early thirties, slightly paunchy but with some muscle left over from his college football days. Like most tattoo shop owners, he was heavily illustrated. From the neck down, he was covered in intricate black and gray artwork, much of it drawn by his own hand.

“I told her you were a nice guy,” Ricky said. “Don’t make me a liar.” Ricky was Greg’s apprentice, and about ten years his junior. Greg’s tattoos were subdued and elegant, like poetry, but Ricky’s work was flamboyant and garish, like poetry shouted through a bullhorn. Ricky’s hair was just as showy, dyed neon colors and moussed into spikes, like electrocuted cotton candy.

Rachel let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “No butterflies,” she said. “And no dolphins or roses or other girly shit like that. I want a tree down my left side… I brought a photo… It was outside my window while I was growing up. Whenever my parents grounded me, which was a lot, I would just climb down the branches and go wherever I wanted. That tree was my freedom, you know?”

“Oh, you’re the tree girl!” Greg said, slapping his forehead. “I remember now. Yeah, Ricky emailed me your photo. I’ve been looking forward to doing this one. I worked up a design I think you’ll like…” Read more…

The First Chain Mail

Thou hast been sent the Accursed Chain Mail! Thou must wear this armor in one battle, and one battle only, after which thou must forward this chain mail to other valiant warriors!

If thou art wondering if the curse is true, I say yea verily!

  • A Persian refused to forward the chain mail, and had his head removed with a battle axe.
  • A Roman who did not forward the chain mail had it ripped from him by the claws of a dragon.
  • A Norman was also foolhardy enough to ignore my warnings, and was cursed with the “French disease”. His masculine parts hence rotted like a barrel of oranges after a long ocean voyage.

To forward this chain mail, thou must have the local blacksmith make five copies, which then thou must give to a page or errand boy to carry to five villages beyond the horizon. If thou dost not complete this task, thou shalt be cursed with the pox! A pox upon thee, I say!

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…