Tag Archives: Books

Where Good Ideas Come From (Review)

I was about half way through Where Good Ideas Come From when I decided I was going to read any book Steven Johnson comes out with regardless of subject matter. I had previously read The Invention of Air and The Ghost Map and enjoyed Johnson’s way of making connections I never would have thought of. Odds are that if anyone else was writing a book called Where Good Ideas Come From, I’d probably just be mildly amused by the concept and moved on, but if anyone might be able to figure out such an ethereal thing, I’d put my money on Steven Johnson.

While it would be relatively easy to take a handful of famous good ideas and point out what they all have in common, Johnson goes much further than that. Sure he talks about the invention of the printing press and air conditioning and television, but he also talks about things like coral reefs and evolution. He doesn’t restrict the concept of ‘good ideas’ just to famous and/or profitable things or even just to human innovation. Instead, he talks about all of this and adds to it the sort of habits and environments that promote the cultivation of good ideas.

Johnson’s informative, but what makes him so readable is how engaged he is in the subject matter. Reading a book by Steven Johnson is like sitting at a bar with the smartest person you know as he tells you his latest research project with all the enthusiasm and intensity you’d expect from an evangelist. He’s not preaching, but he’s definitely making a case.

He dispels the myth of sudden ‘eureka’ moments where ideas arrive fully formed or that closed off, secretive research and development labs are the  best places for good ideas. Many of the typical notions when it comes to coming up with good ideas aren’t nearly as prevalent as one might think. It turns out that ideas, much like people, work better when they are free. The more an idea can float around and bump into things, the better the idea can get. It might take years, but an idea can become a good idea when it interacts with just the right other idea.

Where Good Ideas Come From is one of the few books I’ve encountered that has actually changed my life and the way I create. I don’t think there’s higher praise I can give a book than that.

-Jack Cameron

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How I Write Part 7: Scene Cards & Sound Track

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of the things I’m suggesting may seem like they’d be more suited to moviemaking. There are reasons for that. When people read stories, they play movies of the stories in their heads. They can’t help themselves. So it’s best to make your story at least in some ways, cinematic.

By all means you should write whatever you want to write and if it turns out to be more literary than cinematic, that’s fine. My favorite book is Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the main reason it hasn’t been turned into a movie is that it’s mostly about a father and son on a motorcycle ride. Of course anyone who has read the book knows that a lot more than that is going on, but there’s still the underlying story.

 That’s what this sort of outlining is about. It’s fine to have subtext, but that’s not the sort of thing you can teach. It’s in you and your story or it’s not and at least for me, I’ve found that this is the stuff I like to discover while I’m writing.

So, you’ve got your final outline. You’re ready for the last steps before you jump into the deep end and start writing. Take your final outline and a set of 3” x 5” cards. Write down each scene on each card. Nothing too descriptive. (i.e. “Amber comes  home and encounters burglar”) Every time the place or time changes, get another card. You now have a scene log.

Using your scene log, go through your cards and ask yourself two questions about each scene:

1)      Does it further the plot?

2)      Does it further the character?

If the scene doesn’t do at least one of those things, toss it out and get it out of your final outline. You don’t need it.

 Now you have a list of scenes on cards. As you write the scenes, throw away the cards. This, I’ve found can be incredibly therapeutic. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. Whenever possible use the cards instead of the final outline when you’re writing. This will help you avoid any urge to copy anything from the outline.

But wait! There’s one last thing you should do before you sit down to write your story. This may seem silly and inconsequential, but I’ve found it really helps.

I’m going to assume you have a reasonable collection of mp3s. If you don’t, you know someone who does. Go through your music and make a new playlist. This isn’t necessarily music you’ll be writing to, this is the soundtrack to your story. This music should set the mood you want for your story and will help you get into the frame of mind necessary for the story. Usually, over time, the music list gets longer and longer. This is good.

Now you’re finally ready to write your story. Follow these instructions and I can’t guarantee your story will be good, but it will be solid. Good luck!

I will be posting here throughout the month with updates and tips. It’s almost time to begin.

– Jack Cameron

How I Write Part 6: The Final Outline

Only a few days until the beginning of NaNoWriMo. This weekend is crunch time for me. I’m almost done with my prep work but there’s still some things to iron out.

This is the next to last step in my outlining process. The Final Outline.

Every step you’ve taken so far has changed your story. Your theme turned into a story. Your characters gave your story life. Your characters’ perspective gave you new insight into your story. Now it’s time to take all of that knowledge and turn it into something you can work with.

This is the outline you wanted to write all along, but you didn’t actually have enough information to do so. Write this outline in the order you want it in your story. If your story starts midway through Act II and flashes back to the beginning, write the outline that way. You’ve already worked out any chronology hiccups, so you should be fine. This is your road map if you get lost during the writing.

This outline can be as long as it needs to be. Try not to leave anything out. You can even throw in some dialog if it’s important to the story. There probably won’t be too many new surprises or significant changes in at this point, but you never know. If you do make any sort of major change, go back to your Perspective Outlines and make sure you haven’t screwed up anyone’s story.

Once you’re done with this step, you should feel pretty good about the story. Staring at a blank page shouldn’t scare you at this point. You’re almost ready.

Did I say ‘almost’? Yeah. There’s still two more things you need to do before you finally sit down to write. I’ll get to those next.

 

 

How I Write Part 4: The Big Outline

You know your basic story. You’ve fleshed out your main characters. If you’re anything like me, once you know your characters, they’ll start changing the plot on you. This is a good thing. Character-driven stories are easier to write and more fun to read. Let them take you where they need to.

Read over your original outline. Read over your character sketches. The thing you want to remember is that right now, none of it is in stone. You can still change anything you want to. And again, changing things at this stage is a lot easier than changing things later.

Now that you have the characters and outline in your head, it’s time to write the Big Outline. Unlike the previous one, you want to write down everything you can think of in this one. Include, plot, subplot, character moments, and anything else you think you might need. This outline should be a few pages long. Write it from beginning to end. If your story jumps around in time, this is a good chance to make sure you have the chronology correct.

If you’ve done your job right, there will probably be a few surprises. Now that you know who you’re dealing with, they’re likely to make different choices than you had them make in the original outline. Now is the time to let these things happen. If it goes somewhere that doesn’t fit with the rest of the narrative, you can always junk it or use that particular part for another story. And you can always change the character if you need to.

Once you’re finished writing the outline, read it over a couple of times. This is your story. If you don’t like it at this stage, change it. You’re going to be spending the next few weeks wading through this story so if it isn’t a world you want to be in, fix it fast. If the author isn’t interested, then the readers definitely won’t be.

At this point, there are a lot of people out there who would just start to work on the actual writing, but I don’t think it’s time yet. There are still things you should do before you hit the ground running. We’ll get into those next.


How I Write Part 3: Main Character Sketch

The most important thing in any story is character. If you know your characters well enough, they’ll tell the story for you. Good characters can even save a bad plot. This is why it’s important to put together character sketches of each major character. Again, Feature Filmmaking At Used Car Prices informed a lot of what I put together here though a lot of it is my own as well.

It’s fairly simple and gives you a good idea of what kind of character you’re dealing with. You should do this with every major character in your story. Most of this stuff probably won’t even make it into the story but having the character background makes it easier to figure out how your character will behave in any given setting.

Character Name and Age

Physically: This is mostly self-explanatory. What does your character look like? Do they drink or do drugs? Do they exercise?

Family Background: Are they an only child? Do they come from a broken home? Did their father beat them? Were they treated like royalty? What was their childhood like?

Education: How did they do in school? Did they like it? What was their favorite class? Did they play sports? Did they go to college? What kind of school was it? Were they popular?

Social Life: Do they have a lot of friends? Do they go out drinking? What kind of places do they like to go to? Do they have parties? Have they had sex? Do they go out with anyone? In short, what do they do with their lives?

Work History: Where do they work? How long have they worked there? Where did they work before that? Do they like their job? Is it a career job or something just to get by?

Other Details:

So you know what they look like, what kind of family they have, how educated they are, what sort of friends they have, and what their job is like. Now it’s time to make this character just a little more real. 

Hobbies: Do they collect comics books? Do they knit? Play chess? Gamble? Not only does this help round out the character but if you need the character to be doing something, you have something.

Habits: Do they chew their nails? Drive fast? If they switched bodies with someone what would be the give away that of who they really are?

Phobias: What is your character genuinely afraid of. It can be something as silly as spiders or as universal as death. Knowing their fears will help you really get inside their head.

 

You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but you get the idea. Below is a character sketch I put together for a project that was never completed. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo

Around this time last year I had a conversation with my wife that went something like this:

Wife: Have you heard of NaNoWriMo?

Me: That thing where you try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month?

Wife: Yeah. You should do it.

Me: No.

Wife:  But you’re a writer. You could do it.

Me: No. Trying to do that would kill me.

I’ve written one novel. It took me almost a year and it drove me more than a little insane. At the time of that conversation, I’d just finished it. Doing a novel in a month sounded impossible at the time. While I chose not to participate, 165,000 decided they would. Of those, only 30,000 succeeded. That’s a completion rate of just over 18%. Less than one in five. I had made the right choice.

HOWEVER, as a writer and a husband I felt just a little chickenshit. Let’s face it, when an attractive girl asks any guy “Can you do it?”, it doesn’t really matter what ‘it’ is, we want to be able to say, “Of course I can.”  And in this case, it’s my wife. One of the nicest parts of being married is having only one girl you’re trying to impress and so while I didn’t participate last year, I kept thinking about it.

This year, I’m ready. I’ve got the idea, a rough outline, and a plan. I’m getting as many social obligations out of the way before the end of the month as I possibly can. I’m writing something every day just to write.  I’ve even consulted with my HR department at my job to make sure I can take a day or two off if it gets towards the end of the month and I need the time. November 1st, I start writing my second novel.

Wish me luck.

-Jack

 

Ruin Your Life….FOR FIVE BUCKS!

For the month of December I’m offering my first book, Ruin Your Life for $5.00. That’s half the cover price. I promise you this is the lowest price you’ll ever see it.

All you pay is $5.00 plus shipping.  If you’re looking to buy more than one copy, email me at jackcameronis@hotmail.com and I’ll get you a deal on the shipping.

If you’re wondering if Ruin Your Life is the sort of book you want to own or give as a gift, click the Ruin Your Life tab above and you can download a .pdf of the book for FREE.

– Jack Cameron