The story-in-a-box: open it up and it unpacks itself

One of my favorite parts of creativity is the brainstorm. Writing is fun, but can be hard. Brainstorming is not hard. No idea is bad when you’re brainstorming, silly mortal! Even if you don’t use something you’ve written down, it’s keeping the brain hamster running in its wheel and could lead to other, better ideas. So you can just write down anything that comes to mind and worry about picking out the good stuff later. Until then, it’s limitless possibilities, and you get to just live the story.

I see ideas as boxes. Like a package from Amazon (one of the best kinds of packages, am I right?). It comes to you, you bring it inside. You have an empty room ready for it, and you take it there and open it. BOOM, explosion. Looks like that little idea box has a lot of stuff packed inside.

All the contents of the box begin to fill the room. Some of it is simple and obvious, like furniture — the developments that come easily from the basic idea. Then you have the stuff you have to open up and inspect, the cabinets filled with knickknacks — the more complex parts of the idea you must turn over in your hands/mind to see every bit of it.

If the brainstorm is my favorite part of creativity, then the unpacking is my favorite part of the brainstorm. When one idea leads to another, then another, and it feels like it will never end. I have that going on with my current story idea. I also have the “staring at self in mirror while brushing teeth” epiphanies, which are fun in their own right.

I have a little time off starting tomorrow. A perfect opportunity to play around with this idea. I was thinking of doing a zero draft by writing it in a “storyteller” format to get the plot down. A fitting method, I think, as it is a story in a tribal setting.

Let’s see what else this box holds.


Get out of my way, life, I have creativity to do; what am I, a writer or a set designer?

I’ve been terrible about posting regularly, haven’t I? I promised at least microposts, and here I am slacking off. I’m not just any slacker. A slacker king, I am. Too lazy to get my crown, though. Just imagine it on my head, won’t you, peasants? Perhaps I’ve slipped a bit into my antisocial shape. It happens. Often. I know it’s weird calling this blog “social,” as it’s not like I get a lot of comments or actually interact with anyone, but it counts as such to me.

Dealing with life changes right now. Moved into a different place. Will be getting a roommate tonight. Lots of adjustments. My creativity has suffered as a result. Or at least I’m using it as an excuse. Probably the latter. One reason I’m finally posting an entry! Writing in the blog is better than not writing at all.

Let’s see, what else to talk about? Let’s talk about my creativity. Because I never do that, right? Sorry, it’s just a favorite subject of mine. Plus, analyzing it might help it work better for me.

I’ve been wondering if I want to focus on one kind of general setting for my fiction. I’ve toyed with a few different ones in the past. Most of my older short stories took place in the modern age. Others were more vague “fantasy places,” obviously not modern, but indeterminate as to general time period or location. Never focused much on setting. Perhaps not enough? Anyway, as much as I like modern fantasy, I feel like moving away from it in my own work. Getting away from the clutter we live in. Escaping into escapism. So where do I want my stories to take place?

I’m thinking of creating my own world, or worlds. I still want humans, or at least mostly-humans, but I want to be unburdened with our Earth history and cultures. Get away from preconceptions. I thought a good era would be something ancient. Stone Age, no later than Bronze Age, tribes, maybe some city-states, that sort of thing. Heavy on the magic and fantasy. A lot of the themes I enjoy could fit into such a setting, such as heroism, magic, nonhumans, and mythology.

So that’s where most of my creative energy has gone. Brainstorming ideas for such a setting. Well, probably more than one setting for different stories, just in a similar era. It could just be the way my mood is swinging lately, or it could finally be the direction my creativity needs. Not sure yet. It probably won’t be as easy as I’ve convinced myself it will be. At least with short stories, I can play around, experiment, and not worry about building entire worlds.

One thing I have to deal with in regards to creativity: obsession with accuracy. I can’t stand the idea of writing something and having a factual error. I feel like it would make my entire work lose credibility. This makes me want to do, if I may meme for a moment, ALL THE RESEARCH. Nothing wrong with research. Then again, if I put everything on hold and try to absorb every single fact beforehand because of this fear of maybe not being completely right about something, when will I ever write? I suspect this is another method of mine to avoid creativity. So, I have to get over it. Research only when I need to and no more.

Okay, I’ve written enough for today. Hope it wasn’t too unfocused for everyone. I just felt like getting it all out in one go.

The story that would not die; tic-tac-toe squared; I want to read something, but can’t unless it gets Kickstarted.

How’s the creativity going, Hob?”

I’m glad you asked! Because I have good news and bad news. Or maybe both items are bad. Not sure about one of them yet.

I’ll start with the (definite) bad. I have not been devoting the time I should to my creativity. I know, bad writer, no treat. To be fair, I’ve had a busy time of it. For one thing, we’re looking for a place to live. Yet despite my perfectly valid excuse, I know I’ve had pockets of time here and there I could have used for my creativity. Hey, I’m a work in progress. I won’t let myself get stressed if I can’t manage because of a busy schedule, but I will still try harder to find that time.

Okay, the (maybe) good news: I’m not giving up on my current story yet. I have a rewrite planned. It incorporates elements from earlier drafts that I cut for different reasons. I think I might be able to make these bits work the second time around. It helps, and hurts so bad, that I’m changing the ending again. Hopefully, this last rewrite will be the last one, and I can polish it up and get it out there for people to read.

Unless, of course, this story is going to be like a jalopy I keep in my yard, tinkering with whenever I feel the urge. Forever. A never-ending project, a puzzle I never quite solve. Who knows? I will work on other things someday. Soon. But right now I’m not willing to give up on this one. Besides, the elements I’m bringing back in make the story weirder, and that’s a good thing!

If only there was a way to make tic-tac-toe fresh and exciting…”

Dude, there totally is! Just discovered it today, over at the Math with Bad Drawings blog. It’s nine games of tic-tac-toe played within one gigantic game of tic-tac-toe. Go read the article. I love the idea. And you can play anywhere with a few easily carried tools. Or in the sand with a stick!

Hey, have you heard about that Better Angels roleplaying game written by Greg Stolze for Arc Dream Publishing? Makes me wish there was a novel along the same tone.”

Then I have great news for you, person asking me all these questions and setting up my post so perfectly. Greg Stolze is actually writing a novel called Sinner. Nay, scratch that — he’s finished it. He just needs a little Kickstart to get it out to us, the people. I’ve read the first chapter and want to read more. So, in my own self interest, I’m spreading the word. It has three days and just needs a little more cash. Go on, help out.

I love Kickstarter. I’ve gotten some awesome things from it. I’m trying to limit my involvement lately because it can be a dangerous pastime, both in addictiveness and in risk. But Greg Stolze is a pro, and I have faith in the project.

And with that, I dissolve into the night. *looks outside and notices it’s early afternoon* Um, you can leave first if you want. This might take a while.

Getting over writer’s block. As easy as climbing a mountain.

Yes, indeed. Mt. Writingsuccess. The clouds engulfing the peak create an illusion that it is smaller, more easily scaled, than it actually is. I’ve challenged this mountain before.


It bested me.


All writers start at the bottom, surrounded by the writer wannabes. All it takes is one step up the mountain to set yourself apart from them. One step. It’s actually quite easy. No need for rock climbing gear, oxygen, or warm clothing. Just taking the one step is all you need to do.


It’s all uphill from there, my friend.


I climbed beyond the one step. It took time. Effort. I penetrated the cloud cover. Had I reached the top? Hell no! I stood on a ledge and stared up, up toward the peak. So high.


I fell off the mountain. I rolled to the bottom. The fall left me broken.


For years, I stared up at where the clouds met the mountain. I tried to remember what it looked like up there. I couldn’t. Maybe it was best that way. Perhaps I should just forget.


That’s when I saw it. The goat.


Cocky little bastard was standing almost sideways up there. The goat stared at me. It trapped me in the boxes of its rectangular pupils.


Hey!” I yelled. “Don’t you judge me, goat! Climbing mountains is easy when you have cloven hooves.”


Mountain goat

Man, check out this asshole. Smug little shit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Its bleat echoed down to me. Mocking me. Well, to hell with that jerk. I wouldn’t let him get away with it. I started climbing again, determined to get that goat. The climb was harder now. I remembered falling, and I still bore some lasting injuries from it. The goat wasn’t waiting for me, either. It leaped and scrabbled its way higher. I didn’t care. I would eat that damn goat. Raw.






I’m glad I finally fought past the writer’s block. But was that the hard part, or is the hard part really ahead, like I suspect? My skills have lay fallow, so I must relearn them. That sucks, to know I may be a worse writer now than I was years ago at the height of my game. And I can admit to myself that the height of my game wasn’t much. I have a publication in a semi-pro magazine, but that’s it, and that one was a long battle to win. But I will go on. I have to believe I can reach the same level. I have to strive to go beyond it.


My current story is a start. After several drafts and a lot of time, I can say with certainty that it is — okay. Considering it is my first “completed” effort (in quotation marks because it is a full-length story even if I’m still working on it) since the block, I’d call it remarkable. A miracle that I even finished it. But there is so much more climbing to do. I don’t even know if this story will ever be good enough in my eyes to send out to magazines. I’ve got some plot issues to fix, and they’re pretty tough bananas to peel. Might need to give them time to get ripe. Part of me fears putting the story in the drawer, though. What if I never come back to it? I suppose if I end up writing things that I like better, it shouldn’t matter, but it’s symbolic now. Then again, a symbol could be relatively unimportant, only there to inspire greater things.


We’ll see. I’ll tinker with it over the next day or two and make a decision later. Maybe I just needed to write it to break the block, to serve as a learning experience. Who knows?


One last order of business before I sign off. I’ve gone by many names in my day. I shift in and out of them like I change my shape, trying to find something I look good in. Seeing as how I’m making a serious go at the writing thing, I need to settle on a name to write under. Since this is meant to be my personal/professional blog as a writer, it’s probably best to bear that label here, as well.


Ruskin Drake is a name of the past. It served me well enough. New life, though, comes with a new name. Hopefully this time, the name will stick.


You can call me Hob. Hob Nickerson. Nice to meet you.

Beta readers: friends or foes?

I had another post all lined up for today, but I’m preempting it because I can. What are you going to do about it? NOTHING. So sit down and shut your face!

I mean, hey, check this out, lovely people.

Today marks the completion of the fifth draft of my latest short story (which I should really come up with a title for someday). Up to now, it has received no outside feedback. I didn’t think it was ready to be seen by outside eyes. But now it is, and I’ve requested beta readers.

It wasn’t until after I did this that I realized some things. I haven’t written for several years. In that span of time, nobody has read any of my fiction, new or old. This is the first time a lot of people are going to read something I’ve written. Having not seriously written any fiction for so long, I am surely out of practice.

What have I done? Am I insane? ABORT! ABORT!


The button does nothing! (Photo credit: Lorenia on Flickr)

Crap, too late, people are responding. Okay, stay cool. They’re your friends. They’re cool. They’re nice…mostly. They won’t destroy your work and self esteem.

Will they? Oh CRAP, some of them would just for the laughs! I AM A FOOLISH FOOL!

Dramatization aside, it does make me nervous to share my work with people I know. I’m not nervous because I’m thin skinned. I can take criticism, and in this case welcome it. It’s just the fact that I KNOW these people makes it weird, like they’re staring into my brain and seeing things there. Strangers? Hey, no problem. I don’t know them, will never see them, will never attend a BBQ with them or go see a movie with them. People I know? I have to see them (sometimes only metaphorically thanks to the Internet, but regardless) after they read something that I ripped screaming from my head. That’s WEIRD.

But I’m doing it anyway. Because hey, It’s not ME they’re reading. It’s just a story.

What to write, what to write…

I’m getting off a major case of writer’s block. That’s right, I mentioned my block yet again. If you’re playing the drinking game, take a sip. But anyway, one thing that kept that block going for so long is that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write. Well, here’s a secret for you. Come close, I’ll whisper it.

I still don’t know.

I know I want to write fiction. Speculative fiction, most likely fantasy (if I even attempted science fiction, I know science geeks would laugh at me). That’s all I’ve got right now. I’ve never had a strong direction with my art. Probably why I’ve done short stories for my entire career up to this point. Well, except for that one brief fling with a serial story.

How can I not know what I want to write? I blame my brain and all the things it finds fascinating. I imagine most people have minds like a shelf with a few knickknacks. The knickknacks are their interests, and they only have a few to show off, so it’s easier to focus on them.

I, on the other hand, am more like a box filled with random junk. When you shake me, different things rise to the top, and while the contents of the box remain the same, its insides are still altered.

I have many interests, and each can become primary at any time. I could really be into Star Trek at one point, and then a week later be all about Greek mythology. Can’t control it. My brain just shifts gears and I have to go along for the ride. I’m like a jack of all trades, except it’s really a brain of all trades. But remember the rest of the phrase: master of none.

(Which, according to Wikipedia, actually came later.)

Without a strong, lasting interest to focus on, it’s hard to think about long-term projects, and if I ever want to write novels, this is something I must do. So, considering this fact about myself, how do I decide what I want to write?

Write what I know? I don’t know crap. But really, this goes back to the many interests thing. Write what I read? I read a lot of different things, and I wouldn’t write well in some of the genres and subgenres I enjoy. As much as I’d like to claim to be able to write anything and everything, this is not so.

Maybe to figure out the what, I need to think about the why. Just why in the hell do I want to write? Why submit myself to this torture? The power? Fortune? Fame?

Nah, none of that. I’m not talking about the possible results of my writing. I’m talking about what drives the creative urge.

I think I know one non-answer. I don’t write to deal with my own issues or emotions. I’ve tried it, and it works okay, at best. It doesn’t inflame my writer’s passion. Maybe I’m just too good at analyzing my emotions without the need for fiction? Wait, what emotions am I talking about? I’m a freaking Vulcan. Ask my wife.

The primary answer, I think, is that I write to entertain. If you’re reading my stuff, I hope you’re having fun doing it. Even if it’s not something “fun,” I hope it entertains you.

Two other answers which apply:

  • I write to talk about themes that interest me. Heroism, perhaps, or justice.

  • I write to escape. This world sucks. Writing can let me get away from it once in a while.

I suppose I should ponder these three whys to get the answer to the question of what. I like to ponder.

Making a character generator, or “It’s ALIVE!”

A lot of the ideas I come up with are situational. I suppose it’s a symptom of a mind obsessed with speculation. “What if…a monkey was the only hope for mankind, but he LOST HIS SHOES?” That’s fine. Plot is situation, or a series of situations.

And yet…something troubles me about this. I fear that this approach may lead to weaker characters if I am not careful. Tools to achieve my ends, rather than the fascinating people who should be entertaining the smart, handsome readers that will read my stuff. Puppets, not actors. Mere parodies of life, rather than living souls that leap off the page and make out with you! I’m sure you get the idea.

I’ve seen it happen in my work, I’ll admit. Plot dominating characters, making them do what it requires to run smoothly. Obviously, I don’t want that to happen. Characters are far-and-away my favorite part of fiction. They are why I love to roleplay. I want my characters to be strong, interesting. They should drive the story, not the other way around. I want them to be as alive for my readers as they are for me. If they’re not alive for my readers, I have a problem. If they’re not alive for me, I have a crisis.

So here’s the point of all this rambling. As an experiment, I’m going to focus my future brainstorming efforts on making characters first, then finding the stories they want to tell. Characters first. Kind of a play on words there. But how to brainstorm these characters?

I have my usual method, which I call “heck, I don’t know, it just happens sometimes.” Okay, seriously, I do actively seek inspiration sometimes. I mix random words together to see what they make (I recommend signing up for any word-of-the-days you can find if you’re into this method), or I watch/read/consume some fiction and look for little nuggets I like that I can use as a seed to grow some new ideas of my own. These can still work.

But I have a new device I’m working on. It’s not even a fully functioning prototype yet (waiting for some parts in the mail — how dare they keep a mad wizard/scientist waiting), but it’s getting there. It is my Character Generator. I’ve based it off of the character creation process in your typical tabletop RPG. With an assortment of tables, I can roll dice and use the results to figure out random traits for a character. At first, I planned to make it incredibly detailed and thorough. I had opposing concepts on sliding scales, and I had a lot of them. Every aspect of the character would be decided in the process. No need for interpretation. No need to brainstorm.

Do you see the problem with that? I’ll give you a moment to write your answer in essay form. Okay, never mind, answer time: it took the creativity out of it. Oh sure, I could still use the results to brainstorm story ideas and whatnot. Also, I could tweak the characters afterward. But in my effort to automate the process, I had gone too far. Where was the soul? The art? I decided that I needed something more open-ended so I could be more active in the character creation process. A chaos module installed in my little device to keep things from being too orderly.

I am currently reworking my charts. Each dice roll will now be deciding the answer to a question. These questions and answers will have room for interpretation. Individualization. For example…

What element is associated with your character?

  • Water

  • Earth

  • Fire

  • Air

So now I have to figure out why a character is associated with the element. I still have to use my brain and put the random pieces together. It’s going to be so much fun when I get it finished! At last, the building blocks of life in my capable and responsible hands.

Eh, never mind. I’m going to make monsters.