Note to Self: Don’t Think Too Much

You ever have one of those problems you just can’t solve? A riddle you just can’t work out?

Here’s a tip: stop thinking about it and do something physical to get your mind off it. Go for a walk, take a run or hit the treadmill.

Where the best ideas come from?

I’m suggesting this from experience. I’ve been thinking off and on about a flash fiction piece I want to write. I’ve really, really been struggling over what the title should be. Things have flashed before my mind, popped in there, but each time I was dissatisfied. So, I tried to attack the problem. That didn’t work either. Nothing seemed to feel right.

So, today, there I was on the bike at the gym. Not thinking about the title, not thinking about the flash fiction piece and Bam! It just popped in there. Out of nowhere, the perfect title came to me. The title that summarizes the piece and sets the tone at the same time. It’s all you could ever want in a title. 

I kept turning the title over and over in my head as I worked out. And, when I was done with the workout, I fired up the my cell phone and tapped down the title. Done.

So, next time you’re stuck with a thorny logical problem in writing (a need for a title, a plot problem, a scientific realism issue for you SciFi  writers), do these two things:

  • Stop thinking about it.
  • Do something physical.

Often times, your problem will suddenly and violently solve itself.

A favorite song of mine was also playing at the time the title suddenly popped into my head and this may have had something to do with it as well. I’m not sure, but I’m adding that point just in case it did. And who knows? Maybe that song helped push down the conscious mind even more, allowing the great idea to emerge.

Mendeleev's_1869_periodic_tablePerhaps the most famous account of a huge breakthrough that came while its creator  WAS NOT thinking about anything—in fact, wasn’t even conscious—is Dmitry Mendeleev‘s dream about the periodic table.

Having reached the highest level of nervous exhaustion, he was compelled to lie down for a while, and fell asleep at once. “I saw a table, where the elements were arranged in perfect order. I woke up and put it down at once on a piece of paper. Only later I revised one point.”

Apparently, there is some dispute as to whether this was true or something that Mendeleev made up. The book, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction by Philip Ball, also has an account of the dream. I highly recommend the book for that scene and as a good book overall.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth about that historical incident. We basically have only Mendeleev’s word to go on, so you can believe him or not. But with my latest experience, I have to say the unconscious can be a great help in solving the seemingly insoluble. Also, certain resonances between my experience (albeit on a much smaller stage) and Mendeleev’s—such as struggling day after day with a problem and then finally unplugging the conscious mind and having an answer that “just popped in there”…gives weight to his story. 

“It just popped in there.”

PS: This week at work we had training which included a course called “Creativity and Innovation.” Oh, the irony hung thick. A creator sitting through a course on creativity…if they only knew! Anyway, the instructor asked the students how they came across good ideas in their everyday life. The top two answers were:

1. At the gym.

2. While sleeping.

Other answers included ‘running’ or other unrelated physical activities. I think the underlying theme is that you have to give your conscious mind a break, let the problem fall into the subconscious either by taking a nap or exercising—and let your subconscious take a whack at it. And according to the instructor, you should keep a notepad or cellphone handy to jot down your idea. I couldn’t agree more. There have been times when I’ve got a particularly strong idea and literally walked off the gym floor, opened my locker and grabbed by phone and wrote an idea down in my notes App. I almost always have my phone with me and I’m ready to capture any idea that comes up anytime. 

One final data point: I had been troubled by the main character for a long piece I’ve been thinking about for some time now. Earlier this week, I woke up extra early for a medical appointment (we’re talking 5 a.m.). I was sitting on the couch, munching my cereal like a zombie and suddenly I had it: that character’s main motivation, the thing that made him tick, that drove all his actions. It was perfect. Well, earlier today, I inputted that into my notes for the novel. Another anecdote that supports Mendeleev’s story that sleep or dreams can suddenly solve a problem your conscious mind has struggled with for months.

In a running tally, I count the score as 1 for sleep and 1 for exercise. Both are great sources for problem-solving.

That’s all for today. Until next time, don’t forget to stop thinking, hit the gym or take a nap. And don’t forget your notepad. There’s no telling when a good idea will  pop up.


The Craft: An Attempt at Flash Fiction

[This is part of a series on the art of writing fiction.]
It was only a matter of time before I tried it. Writing flash fiction, I mean. Me, the guy who always said he loved to “write long,” has just finished the first draft of his first flash fiction piece ever. Picacho Illumination Arizona © Jeff Smith 1988

So, how did it go?

Not too bad, actually. I have had this idea of a scene rolling around my head for the last few months and I always thought it might be a good fit for a flash piece. So, I started searching Duotrope, my submission tracker and I saw the list explode when I put in criteria for flash fiction. Lots of journals are hungry for pieces under 1,000 words these days, ranging from top-notch paid markets to magazines just starting out that can’t afford to pay their writers.

So, I thought, what the hell, let’s do this. I banged out the story. About 1,500 words. Way too long to reach the 1,000-word count I needed. But I cut out the entire first section, knocking out 250 words immediately. I ruthlessly honed and whittled the rest and got it down to…980 words. I was really proud of myself for cutting it down that far.

So how did the process go? Not that bad. I write articles about 500-600 words in length for my day job. More importantly, my average fiction writing days used to be about 1,000 words per day. I had some idea how far I should write in my mind. But I also had the temptation to let it wind out, let the writing dogs roam. But I resisted it and ended up at 1,500 words. Then, I agonized over cutting that first section. I hesitated, I grimaced, but I cut it. And you know what? The work is better for it. Then, it simply became a search-and-destroy mission. Rooting out the unnecessary sentences, adjectives, adverbs and duplications and deleting them. In the end, I hit the word count after about four drafts.

The piece is with me now for a final proofread and I’ll submit it this week, starting with the pro journals, working my way down the Duotrope search to semi-pro and other markets as needed. For now, the piece is called “OBA.” I will let you know the full title soon and post on where it ends up.

Finally, a few words of advice. After I wrote the piece I started searching for how-tos online (I should have done that first, I guess). But the interesting thing was that what I found backed up everything I learned writing the piece. As editor-in-chief of Flash Fiction Online and blogger Suzanne Vincent said in an excellent post on the subject: discipline is of upmost importance:

…flash fiction is one of the hardest fiction forms to write.
One word: Economy.
And discipline.

Ain’t that the truth? But what does that mean, exactly? Economy? Well, Vincent goes on:

Economy: An economical writer (IMO the most enjoyable type of writer to read) doesn’t waste words, doesn’t repeat what’s already been said, chooses the ‘less is more’ path to revealing information to the reader.

That means not only being liberal with deleting words, but making sure your descriptions of character, setting, action are terse, even spare.

A simple character is one who needs little description…A simple characters is one whose conflict can be resolved within the context of a very small arena of his life…

…The more complex a setting, the more description it will require. So, complex settings are not suitable for flash fiction.

So, keep those two (character and setting) simple, but don’t forgot your plot, your conflict.

What is conflict? In a nutshell, conflict is the impetus for action. It is the thing that causes your main character to want to do something to change what’s wrong with his world (resolution).

And keep that conflict simple.

Will it take much to resolve the conflict? It could, I suppose. But the simplicity of the setting and the characters combine with this simple conflict to hint to the reader that the resolution will be a fairly simple one as well.

That, in a nutshell, bears out what I learned in writing my first flash fiction piece. The only thing I think I could have greatly improved was the plot. There is a temptation to just present a scene without action or conflict. But that’s not the point of most fiction, readers want tension, conflict and resolution. Oh well. There’s always next time. I will count it as a rookie mistake.

Until then, I suggest you read Vincent’s full article and maybe give flash fiction a shot yourself. Good luck.

The Craft: Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.]James

As I delve into writing more short stories, I’m finding it tough going. I like to write long, let the dogs roam, give the prose time and space to branch out, go down every unexplored alley. Sticking to less than 7500 words is tough.

But two things I’ve gleaned from master short story writers are helping me to walk the line. Poe’s Unity of Effect and Chekhov’s gun help keep things focused when I’d rather stray. But there’s another tool I’ve been thinking about lately. I wanted to call it Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. But just to modernize it a bit, I’m going to call it Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill.

This year, I’m purposefully hunting down modern short stories to read. I read James’s The Turn of the Screw last year before I added that “modern” word to my reading requirements. What drew me to it was the rumored excellent plotting in the piece(apparently, Borges said this somewhere, but I haven’t been able to track down the quote).Hand drill Anyway, I read the novella and despite the dated language, I really enjoyed it. There are many layers to the story, but I focused on the plot. James doesn’t use the metaphor, “turn of the screw,” in reference to plot, but you can feel with each chapter, he turns the screw just a little, he ratchets up the tension just so. The closest he gets to revealing this explicitly is at  the beginning of the novella where a character mentions the first appearance of the ghost in the book.

“I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?”

He’s talking about introducing characters here, but it draws us in. What if not only one child saw the ghost, but two? Wouldn’t that make it more real? And with each chapter the governess responsible for the children witnesses clearer and clearer hints of the ghosts that visit the children. The screw turns slowly, bit by bit.

It was interesting to see how James does this, but I knew as I read it, that that approach wouldn’t work today. First, you’d have to have more direct language. Second, audiences today are so used to immediate gratification from movies, video games and flash fiction that the slow burn, the turning of the screw, just doesn’t seem to work. Don’t believe me? Just look at this trailer from an internationally successful Movie franchise.

Turn of the Screw? Not so much.

Not a lot of slack there. It’s action, action, action. No subtle hints, slowly rising tension.

Now, I’m not one to cave easily. I don’t believe in dumbing down what I write just to appeal to contemporary tastes. But a part of me also has to acknowledge it’s not 1898 any more. People don’t wait for the next newspaper with a new chapter from Tolstoy, James or Twain in it. People consume a lot more than just books now—they have movies, TV, video games, social media. And all that new media has to affect what we do as writers. But it doesn’t mean throwing away the old things, it means adapting them to new realities. 

And so it goes with Poe’s Unity of Effect, Chekhov’s Gun or Henry James’s Turn of the Screw…ahem…Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill. These days, the turn of the screw simply isn’t enough to do the trick. Not with audiences raised on all these different types of media. You need to bring your power drill. And as I sit down to write this weekend, that’s something I’m going to use to keep the audience engaged and reading. Cause in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Mardi Gras Giveaway

It’s Fat Tuesday and it’s time to indulge.

My historical novella, The Man Who Ran from God  and my short story, “The Truck Stop” are both free today (March 4) on the Kindle store. That’s 25,000 free words.


So, whichever Krewe you support, be it Proteus, Orpheus or Zeus, grab the two works before you head out to the parade. You’ll be glad you did when Lent rolls around.