Category Archives: inspiration

Some Words of Encouragement….


Years and years and years ago, when I could still be considered a young man, my wife and I moved from California to Washington State so I could go to graduate school. One of my good friends in California gave me a going-away present. She was also an aspiring writer, and we briefly collaborated on some stories. Her gift was a handmade poster with encouraging quotes from notable authors about writing– frankly, one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received. It was entitled “Some Words of Encouragement”, and it hung on the wall of most of my work-areas for the next decade. Eventually, however, we moved into a house with severe space issues, so it was stored away.

This weekend I started clearing our garage, possibly in preparation to sell that same space-challenged house, and I found the poster. It brought back good memories, but more than that, the quotes were still pertinent to my writing process, and I suppose they would be to anyone else’s, too. It seemed a good idea to share them, and here they are.

Note– since I received these quotes second-hand, I cannot wholly vouch for their accuracy. But my friend was pretty careful and precise in most of her dealings, so I have no reason to think they are wildly off the mark. Also, the advice dates from the Dinosaurian Age, when there was only Traditional Publishing (and typewriters!), and self-publishing meant handing out mimeographed copies of your work on street corners. Because of that, some of the quotes should be taken with a grain of salt– but they’re still fun.

Lastly, I’ve tried to keep transcription errors to a minimum.


“Tell the readers a STORY! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”

— Anne McCaffrey

“You are not your writing. That is, people can love you and hate your work. Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.”

— Ron Goulart

“Be persistent. Editors change; editorial tastes change; markets change. Too many beginning writers give up too easily.”

— John Jakes

“Study the writers magazines and pound the hell out of the typewriter.”

— Erle Stanley Gardner

Any advice, ideas or suggestions about writing from people not in the creative world should be staunchly ignored and the damaging mental vibrations quelled with a good hot fudge sundae.”

— Nancy Winslow Parker

“Always make sure you get paid.”

— Ron Goulart

“Ray Bradbury told me to put a sign on my typewriter: DON’T THINK! It works miracles. I suggest one above that: HAVE FUN.”

— Richard Bach

“Preserve time each day for absolute quiet and privacy, whether you’re writing or not. It is, after all, the inner life that alone nourishes the writer’s real senses.”

— Donald Spoto

“The ideas that at first seem most outrageous, even ludicrous, are often our best and/or most creative ones – they just seem strange because we have gotten beneath the level of cliche in reaching them.”

— Rosemary Daniell

“You are your own person. You do not have to see things the way others do– in fact it will probably bode better for your writing if you do not.”

— Valerie Sherwood

“Write it and send it in. The most crucial thing a writer does is produce.”

— Robert B. Parker

“Life is a short run – milk it. Write what you really want to.”

— Ralph G. Martin

“The beginning writer needs talent, application and aspirin. If he wants to write just to make money, he is not a writer.”

— James Thurber

“The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He’s entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling his time has been wasted, you’re in violation.”

— Larry Niven

“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.”

— Harry Kamelman

“It takes most of us writers a long time to learn our craft. So keep at it. Don’t give up.”

— Jacqueline Briskin

“Don’t write what you know – what you know may bore you, and thus your readers. Write about what interests you – and interests you deeply – and your readers will catch fire at your words.”

— Valerie Sherwood

Impressions while listening to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Fordlandia”

Solar winds
scour the sky
Frozen worlds
locked in mystery
The dreadful fall
of burning spaceships,
lost in heaven-spanning battles.
Silent monuments
of forgotten races,
tombs entrapping the secrets
of millenia.
The screaming passage
of the event horizon,
skimming darkness and chaos,
to fall, fall, fall
back to a morning
beside the sea
I watched you walk
barefoot, smiling,
in the sand,
and I feel the touch
of a lost-love’s hand

Progress report– Princess of Fire, ELO and the quest for inspiration

Princess of Fire is now at 130,000 words, a little below the pace I wanted to set, but not by much. The effective total word count is probably several thousand words less than that, because I’ve found some redundant material that needs to be cut. I haven’t started that process yet, however, so I’m going with 130,000 for the time being.

My best guess that I have one complete chapter and parts of two others left to do, perhaps 10,000 words, perhaps some more. The operative word there is ‘guess’, but I am, thank God, getting close.

One aspect of my writing process is that I frequently listen to music while writing. Somehow providing a soundtrack to my narrative composition seems to enhance it. I am not sure what the exact mechanism is, if the music inspires me to push harder, or if there is some sort of creative synergy in my brain between the words and the music, but it seems to help.

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand exactly how a certain piece of music enhances my writing; a casual observer might wonder how a pop-rock tune from the ’70’s relates to a science-fiction novel set in the 21st Century. But for this last push that’s exactly what I have been doing– I have been listening to a lot of Electric Light Orchestra, which is a large part of the soundtrack of my youth. For example, “Telephone Line”–

and “Do Ya”–

both of which have been helping me push through some intense scenes (flames, ash falling from the sky, Kathy facing down an angry mob by herself– the usual stuff. Poor kid). How they help me, though, is something of a mystery.

Some other stuff I listen to is a little more straightforward–

And, yes, I really lean toward the epic.

There are a few pieces, though, that I find so powerful that I have to save them for very special occasions. One of these is Patrick Cassidy’s “Funeral March”–

So far I have only used this to help write the little bit of Princess of Stars I’ve gotten down to-date– it’s just too intense for daily use.

I know other writers use music to inspire them, so I’m not a complete oddball. If anyone cares to share their writing soundtracks, or the other inspirational tricks they’ve developed to help grease the creative wheels, I would be really interested to hear about them.

Movies that inspire me– “A Man for All Seasons”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I love movies. I do not, of course, love all movies equally.

There are movies that make me go “ugh”. There are movies about which I say “meh”. There are movies I enjoy that I see just once. There is a small cohort of movies that I see again and again because I find something special about them.

And then there is a handful of movies that inspire me as a writer to create whole new worlds on the page.

I cannot logically quantify the difference between the films I love and the films that fire my imagination. Some of the films in the latter category aren’t famous or even particularly good– for example, “Wizards” and “Circle of Iron” (I am willing to bet half of you have never even heard of these films). But something about these movies make me want to go write and write powerfully.

One of these inspirational films is the 1966 movie “A Man for All Seasons”–

(Ah, trailers from the 1960’s. So…verbal).

There is something about the depth, the quality, the sheer intellectual integrity of this film that rivets my attention, and has done so since I first saw it in the early 1970’s. The opening title sequence alone pulls me into a whole other world. This movie and the TV mini-series “Elizabeth R” from 1971 were both direct inspirations for my early series of alternate history novels (now, regrettably, trunked, most likely forever). Re-watching the film recently, I found it still, even after all these years, had the power to launch me directly into a new concept for a fantasy story-line (perhaps more on that in a future post, when its had a chance to gel).

One factor, undoubtedly, is the cast– Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York (one of those actresses, such as Audrey Hepburn and Elisabeth Sladen, who simply cause my brain to stop working), Nigel Davenport, and a young John Hurt in his first major role. The next time I saw him was in “Alien”, and I’ve been following him ever since. Where do you get an ensemble like that? (oh, yeah, Great Britain. Duh)

This movie, adapted by Robert Bolt from his stage play of the same name, has great acting, great cinematography, great music, but most of all, it’s about something– freedom of conscience in the face of absolute power. How many Hollywood productions nowadays can even pretend to have a deeper meaning than selling tickets? And yet this movie does it without seeming false or heavy-handed.

Certainly that’s part of the reason I find this film inspirational. The fact that it’s about a period of history that has long fascinated me is another factor. In the end, though, I am unable to provide a completely rational reason why I find this movie so fascinating and inspiring– somehow the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Maybe that’s just the mark of a great movie.

Sirrah, if thou hast not seen this film, hie thee down to the corner video store and renteth it tonight. Verily, thy mind and heart will be expandethed. Or something like that.

In future posts I will talk about other films that inspire me, and, perhaps, I can tease out what it is that about these films that set my brain on fire. If only I could then bottle it….


My struggle with an era

I am now about 72,000 words into Princess of Fire. I’m starting to link up sections, working toward a unified narrative. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is a core section yet to be written that probably contains most of the really difficult material. That’s the disadvantage of the “bypass and infiltrate” model of writing– you’re still going to have to come back and deal with the enemy strong-points you’ve bypassed. In other words, writing the easy stuff now doesn’t make the hard stuff go away.

Meanwhile, when I’m not putting out resumes and phoning temp agencies, I spend my time reading. One of the books I am (re)reading is Isaac’s Storm, a non-fiction recounting of the Galveston hurricane of 1900–

The book captures the tragedy and horror of the hurricane, which killed thousands of people, in part because turn-of-the-century weather forecasters failed, through hubris and bureaucratic stupidity, to recognize the signs a monster storm. The book also conveys something of the era, which makes it doubly valuable to me.

I have long been fascinated by the period of about 1895 to 1914. It’s a time that overlaps the late Victorian and the Gilded Age with the Edwardian, and in some ways you could think of it as the last twenty years of classical Western civilization– the Great War shattered all the previous assumptions, and then the Second World War obliterated the remains. The world we live in would be mostly unrecognizable to someone from 1900.

I’ve long wanted to write something about this period, but I’ve never been able to. I’ve bounced around the Boxer Rebellion, flirted with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, contemplated the suppression of the Philippine Insurrection, and surveyed the Klondike and Nome gold rushes, but nothing has gelled. There’s just too much good stuff– I haven’t been able to settle on one or two threads with which to weave a story.

It’s frustrating, but I think eventually something will crystallize. One thing– I probably need to start thinking about characters, rather than the grand, epic vistas of history. Maybe once I do that, things will come into focus.

Meanwhile, I pound away on Princess of Fire. At least that’s keeping me off the streets.


There is a movie theater in my head

Last night I was writing a segment of Princess of Fire in which Kathy is receiving the spontaneous homage of a thousand people at once (why is she receiving homage? You’ll have to read the book 😛 ). It is a sweeping scene- Kathy enters a plaza, and a thousand men and women prostrate themselves, without a word. In my head a bittersweet soundtrack is playing over the images, because of what’s happened before this.

While writing it, I thought (as I usually do) that it would play well on a movie screen. And then I realized it is a movie– an exclusive engagement at the multiplex in my head.

I love movies. I would someday like to write for the movies, although I understand from folks I know in the business that it is thankless and heartbreaking, and a good way to lose your soul. I would love my stories to be filmed someday.

So perhaps it is not surprising that, when I write, many of my scenes play out as movie scenes. I believe I am not alone in this– a couple of weeks ago I reviewed the 1996 film The Whole Wide World, about Robert E. Howard, who the filmmakers portrayed as going through a visualization process for his stories that looked very familiar (I, too, have garnered my share of quizzical stares). And I have heard many other writers describe their own writing process in similar terms.

This may be one of the reasons Princess of Fire is cooking along at a faster pace than Princess of ShadowsFire , as I imagine it, has an enormous number of “cinematic” moments that cry out for a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick to direct them (well, if I am imagining this stuff, I might as well go for the best). There’s conflict, death, regret, love, train wrecks, armies dying the mud, zeppelin crashes (I know, I do a lot of those, but what the hey), and things that go boom in a really big way (I’ll stop there, I’m on the verge of spoiling my own book). And, fortunately, Princess of Stars feels as if it will be just as cinematic.

But, there is downside to this sort of visualization– disappointment. Usually when I get the scene down and completed, it is not nearly as dramatic or powerful as I what I pictured in my head. I know other writers– and artists, in general– have complained of the same disconnect between concept and execution. One way I have heard this expressed is “what is on the page (or screen) is only sixty percent of what you had in your head”. And that’s sixty percent after editing and correcting.

This is most likely inevitable– people are imperfect, and their execution of imagined objects is imperfect. In one respect, the images in my head will always be their most vivid and powerful there; what I reproduce on the page is often a poor shadow. You wonder if this is where Plato came up with his theory of Forms.

Not only is imperfection inevitable, it is probably not something we can do much about. At a certain point a work, a story or a painting or a film, reaches a state in which continued correction and rethinking almost inevitably makes things worse, not better. Some artists have destroyed their work, trying to access some portion of that last forty percent– George Lucas pretty much did this with his special editions of Star Wars (Han shot first, dammit!), before selling the ruins to Disney (we live in dark times).

Still, sixty percent is better than nothing, and some days I come close (or closer) to what I imagine. I’m certainly not going to give up just because I can’t get it perfect.

Does anyone else have a movie theater of the mind? And how do you deal with the imperfection of the executed work?

A few changes in the works, and a thought on literary time-bombs

I am in the process of changing a few things about my blog, mainly in terms of appearance, starting with the title. “Doug Daniel’s Writing Blog” is what I slapped on this thing two years ago, for lack of anything more creative, when I wasn’t sure what blogging involved or what I wanted to do with it. Well, now I’ve got a much better idea what I’m doing, and the old title is pretty, well, blah. “On Writing, and other forms of suffering” seems a much more appropriate title, although I may try some others on for size. I may work on the themes and other items as well. But it will still be me, worrying and whining about something.

Meanwhile, some of you may recall that in my last post I implied that I might occasionally doodle away at my epic fantasy while focusing on Princess of Fire. Well, Sunday I doodled, and doodled, and doodled, to the tune of more than 2000 words. I finally had to force myself to stop. I really enjoy writing the main character. Mankin is morose, suffering, meaner than a tax auditor on April 16th (when he’s riled), but also smart, compassionate, funny, and humble. And he is a deadly, deadly swordsman. Anyone who is part of the Three Musketeers/Captain Blood demographic would get this character.

But doodling this much on the epic reminded me quite pointedly of one of the main problems with the story line I created for him– there isn’t much there. Mankin has always been something of a character in search of a plot. In his earliest incarnations, he really did little more than wander around and have adventures, like Conan the Barbarian with musical talent (oh, did I mention that?). Even now, after years of noodling about him, I realize that he would be under-motivated for the story I have created. Most especially, there is no sense of a ticking time-bomb– the urgent danger that necessitates him, and others, risking life and limb, and even more, to stop the bomb from going off.

In most dramatic literature, you need that time-bomb, ticking away in the background. In Lord of the Rings the time-bomb is will Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom (without getting caught) before Sauron conquers everything and/or Gollum stabs them in the back? Even realistic fiction has versions of this– in Hamlet the time-bomb is will Hamlet freaking make up his mind before his uncle knocks him off first? In most drama, you need some impetus against which the protagonist has to struggle to his utmost. There’s a reason why stories involving literal ticking bombs are usually so dramatic.

So my little diversion with this story did have one benefit– when I do return to it in a serious way, I will need to thoroughly rethink the story, so that Mankin is given something real and important to strive against, as well something good to achieve. In the meantime, bud, sorry, but it’s back in the drawer with you. I have to go help Kathy out. Who, by the way, does have a serious time-bomb on her hands. Simply mountainous….

The prayer of a man three weeks unemployed.

Oh Lord God
Creator of all things
Ruler of Heaven and of Earth
get me out of here.

Lord, you see and know all things
so you need no bulletins from me
regarding my unemployed state
It’s been three weeks, Lord
it would be really okay by me
if that didn’t go to four
Three weeks is long enough
to be in Limbo
which I don’t believe in anyway
since I’m a Presbyterian

Lord, aside from the no income
versus the all kinds of outgo
there is the terrible curse
of time on my hands.

There are just so many times
I can watch Batman Begins,
and my behind hurts from sitting and
playing Halo
Lord, you ordained the Sabbath for rest
Doing it for the other six days of the week
gets tired really quick
Lord, surely I have been idle too long
when I start to compare and contrast “The View”
versus “The Talk”

But Lord,
far, far worse
are the chores.
Clean the bathroom
Vacuum the carpet
Take the laundry out of the dryer.
Because of these burdens, Lord
I dwell in the Slough of Despond.

And yet, Lord, these trials pale,
they fade to insignificance
beside the terror
of yard work.

Lord, have mercy.
gravity + autumn = falling leaves
is part of your divinely ordained plan for Nature
Who, then, is puny man
that he tries to interpose
his unbiblical and heretical ideas
about a tidy lawn?
But we sin again and again in this manner
every fall.

Lord, I’m not picky
I’ll put up with a lot
Stupid bosses
impossible deadlines
right-wing co-workers
lousy pay-rates
(well, within reason)
I’ve done it before.
So, please, give me a shot
allow the offer letters to come in
set my phone to ringing
I’m ready, Lord.

And do it quick
my wife is talking about
cleaning out the garage.

In the name of Jesus Christ, your Son
(who, if you might recall, Lord,
was also a working man),

Inspiration and the joy of pre-written material.

I am starting to get feedback from my beta-readers on Princess of Shadows, and no one has reported any seriously negative symptoms yet– vomiting, rashes, un-American activities, that sort of thing. Time will tell. The one cautionary response so far is that one reader began to wonder just how many times something was going to get in Kathy’s path back to Crown. That is clearly another way of saying things run a little long, but the reader was not able to mention anything specific they would want to cut. It’s an indication that I need to think hard about cutting, in any event (no surprise).

In my last post I half-jokingly referred to “pre-written” material feeding into my draft of Princess of Fire. Turns out that “pre-writing” (rather than pre-written) is an actual concept, at least enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry–

Very interesting, although in my case I was using pre-written in a somewhat different sense.

My story ideas come from many different places. Sometimes a story comes out of frustration with an existing work– I have a space opera waiting in the wings that, in part, owes its origins to my rage over the Verhoeven Starship Troopers atrocity and my grief over the cancellation of Firefly. Sometimes the inspiration is more direct– the first Mankin story I ever wrote was directly inspired by, God help me, a scene in Sword of Shannara (yes, I once read Sword of Shannara. Give me a break, I was twenty). I can hardly see a professional production of anything Shakespeare without getting inspired, either about my current work in progress or about a new story– in fact, I can trace the ultimate origin of Kathy and the Divine Lotus series to a production of As You Like It I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 1990’s. Sometimes, even something in my everyday life will actually inspire a story idea, such as a story I have in my files based on my time in the US Army in Germany (unfortunately, it’s another abandoned tale, with a melange of life in the Army, horror and time-travel that never quite worked).

Sometimes the inspiration will express itself as a character or a setting. Many times, however, for me I actually start with nothing more than an image, usually of something happening. That first Mankin story started as an image of a lone man crossing a body-strewn battlefield, in haste and desperation. Often these images lead nowhere– at the moment I have in mind the image of an M1 Abrams tank firing its main battery and the concussion shattering every window in a Regency manor house, ala Jane Austen. It beats the crap out of me how an M1 got to Regency England (although it might indicate I’ve been watching too much Jane Austen), and I rather doubt that any story will ever grow out of it. But that’s the sort of thing my creative side (to the extent I have one) serves up.

And then, sometimes, thinking about a story long enough yields me a tremendous number of interlocking images, to the extent that when I sit down to actually draft the story large sections of it are practically already written in my mind. Of course, if I’ve ruminated long enough, the story ceases to be just images, as characters, dialogue, and conflict attach themselves to the scenes.

This is what I meant by “pre-written”, and it is the happy state I find myself in regarding Princess of Fire. In three days I have taken it from 4000+ words to more than 7000, a thousand words a day, a pace at which I would have finished Princess of Shadows sometime last October. Something about this story is powerfully stimulating to my imagination. I’d like to think it’s not just because there are bigger explosions in this novel than in Shadows, but that doesn’t hurt.

The conclusion I have to come to is that inspiration and imagination are quirky things. More than likely what gets my imagination going would be alien to others. But then, as writers, particularly writers of fiction, we are not exactly engaged in a wholly rational activity in the first place. We spend time with imaginary people in imaginary danger, trying to make them as real as possible. It helps if our imagination does a lot of the work ahead of time.

I don’t know how far my pre-written material will carry me with Fire, but I intend to milk it for all it’s worth.