On The Subject Of: Ideas

Over the next couple of weeks, the writers on this blog will be turning their focus to the topic of “Ideas”.  I’m kicking things off, so here we go with a few particular things that came to mind on the subject.

My favorite ideas are usually the ones that come at me from the periphery, sneaking in from the side while I’m focused on something else.  Perhaps an example would serve to illustrate.  Last week I was sitting at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs play the Nationals.  Intent on the current inning’s play, I heard one of the concessionaires hawking his goods off to my right and I could have sworn that the item he was selling was “radioactive isotopes”.  I immediately envisioned a story featuring a “farmer’s market” for super villains.  That one went right into the Moleskine notebook that I carry in my pocket for just such elements.

A lot of my ideas come from exploring the question, “What if?”.  I’ll see a reference to something and run it through the what if mill.  A historic event… what if it hadn’t happened?  A famous person… what if they were an alien or a mechanical construct?  You get the idea.

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Habitually Focused – The Pomodoro Technique

The human brain is a wondrous thing, capable of amazing feats of creativity and logic.  The complexities can be both boon and bane, the latter when distractions are present.  Last week, at the Ignite Phoenix event, I learned about a simple technique that can help when focus is needed.  It’s called Pomodoro, named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that was first used by technique creator Francesco Cirillo.  The technique revolves around 5 simple steps:

  1. decide on the task to be done (writing it down helps to confirm the focus)
  2. set the timer for 25 minutes (over time this act will train the brain that it’s time to focus)
  3. work on the task (and only the task) for 25 minutes, until the timer rings and mark an x next to the task
  4. take a 5 minute break (reward the brain for staying focused)
  5. repeat (and after completing 4, take a longer break like 15-20 minutes)

The individual 30 minute units are called “pomodoros” and the x marks show a measure of progress that is also a form of reward for accomplishment.  The timer sound reinforces the “no distractions” rule and also provides a bit of white noise.

I can certainly see the applications for this in my writing regimen, where anything that reinforces focusing habits is firmly in the boon column.

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Two Sides of the Undead: Zombies vs Vampires

A friend asked the other day about the popularity of stories/movies featuring zombies and vampires and whether there was any correlation between the two, since they both revolve around an undead being.  We had a pretty good discussion on the topic and I’ve thought some more about the particulars.

For me the only correlation is that in most stories the zombie and the vampire are both former humans who, through some event, have undergone a change.  Though the “event” is often violent in both cases, the outcome is decidedly different.

Given a choice, I would bet that most would prefer the vampire route.  The modern vampire incarnation has relatively few downsides, the exception being the no daytime playtime rule.  The zombie experience, however, is pretty much all downside, the only saving grace being that there’s no mind left to mind.

The vampire is portrayed as an elite evolution, usually an outsider careful to hide his true form while picking and choosing victims.  The zombie, on the other hand, has little choice but to thrash about, having devolved into mindless pursuit in the grip of hunger.

Since the basis for each genre comes from different parts of the world, the vampire from Europe and the zombie from Africa by way of the Caribbean, it’s not surprising that there are vast differences in the particular points to which, through tradition, each adhere.

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The non-fiction storyteller

American science journalist and author Michael...
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I’ve noticed a trend lately in the non-fiction books I’ve read: telling a story amongst the facts, figures and research.  I’m not sure if it’s just the kinds of books I have been drawn to recently or if it’s indicative of the non-fiction for mass consumption space in general (I would exclude textbooks and technical books from the list).

My first example (and a book that I am currently in the midst of reading) is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.  The author does a great job of drawing the reader into the journey that he undertakes while still providing plenty of facts based on personal research.

Another prime example is “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely.  By examining the science behind human social behaviour, the author immediately taps into situations that the reader can identify (and identify with) in his or her own life.

“Stiff”, “Spook” and “Bonk” by Mary Roach all exhibit the kind of narrative that defines a good story while shedding light on things that everyone contemplates at one time or another: death, post-death and sex.

If you know of any other authors that weave a story within a non-fiction work, please post a comment.  I’d love to hear about them.

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A Serious Slice of Life

A Serious Man
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Over the weekend, I watched the Oscar-nominated (Best Motion Picture of the Year & Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) film, “A Serious Man“.  The cast is a great mix of instantly recognizable veteran actors and fresh faces, each attached to a well-developed character, no matter the amount of screen time.  The visuals of the Midwest of 1967 ably draw you in, giving a frame of reference for the intertwined story of father and son, Larry and Danny Gopnik, each propelled toward a crossroads in life.

The Coen brothers are as much master craftsmen of the screenplay as they are of the film as a whole.  Each conversation that takes place feels very natural while also advancing the story at a carefully measured pace.  The only time any of the characters is played against the expected is when they are involved in one of the dream sequences that are sprinkled throughout.  And, while I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the Jewish customs portrayed, it felt as though each i was dotted and t was crossed without becoming pedantic.  In other words, I felt that I was given enough information that I could follow along without breaking the flow of the story.

One deftly wielded technique that is used almost to perfection is the passage of time that occurs out of view of the two main characters (I cannot recall any scenes that did not involve at least one of them).  Minor characters go off and take part in activities that we only learn about when their orbits reconnect with the main storyline.  As in life, we, as observers of the main character’s view, are only aware of those things that occur elsewhere when we are told about them secondhand, and then only to the detail that others are willing to share.  There is likely a whole other movie that could be made, entitled “Uncle Arthur’s Off Screen Adventures”.

If you enjoy wordsmithing or witty dialogue, pay particular attention to the scenes between Larry and the Korean student or the student’s father (there are two of the former and one of the latter).  Subtly delivered, they are darkly comedic gold.

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