Monday, November 24, 2008

Certain Things Must Happen

The plan isn’t foolproof. For it to work,
certain things must happen.

So begins Jack Handey’s bank heist piece in the Shouts and Murmurs column of this week’s New Yorker magazine.

He lists a series of highly unlikely (yet clever and hilarious!) coincidental events that must occur for a certain robbery to succeed. Improbable as the events are, a writer might be able to weave one or two of them into a story -- taking care to make them motivated and believable -- and end up with a rollicking good tale (for example, Ocean’s Eleven).

But if a writer substitutes “plot” for Handey’s opening reference to “plan,” the list becomes an effective refresher on the problems of deus ex machina and coincidence in fiction.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's All Good

I miss the easiness of warm summer mornings. I'd pull on shorts and a t-shirt, then walk for coffee, thinking about stories.

But fall is good, too.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Life in Cards

From the Chicago Tribune: The Topps Company will soon sell 90 baseball-style trading cards that document significant moments in Barack Obama’s life.

It’s a great exercise for anyone, especially a writer: What are 90 of the most significant people, places (be specific), moments, actions, and utterances of your -- or your character’s -- life? What image represents each? What stories emerge?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Search Power

The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continually tracks patterns of infectious diseases, including annual outbreaks of influenza. Data is gathered from a network of doctors, correlated by the CDC, then released weekly via FluView, which details the rates and geographic patterns of illness (scroll to see map at end). It’s a long-established process that tootles along.

Now enter Google -- specifically,, a philanthropic arm created to glean socially important meaning from Internet-search trends. From the blog:

Our team found that certain aggregated search queries tend to be very common during flu season each year. We compared these aggregated queries against data provided by the [CDC], and we found that there's a very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week. As a result, if we tally each day's flu-related search queries, we can estimate how many people have a flu-like illness.

Google data correlates strongly with CDC data, and can be tallied faster and with fewer resources -- automatically, even. For now, it’s fun to compare it against well-known disease patterns and trending processes. But the real excitement is its potential in epidemiology, if disease variations, including pandemics, emerge.

Who'da thunk?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Multi-dimensional Character

I resist negativity on this blog and aspire toward a playful space for creativity. So I won’t rant about the over-mortgaged homeowners in this article from the International Herald Tribune. Instead, I’ll fit one of them into a writerly challenge:

[Kenny], a data security specialist, moved into Mountain House [California] last year, buying a foreclosed property on Prosperity Street for $380,000. But the decline in values has been so fierce that he too is underwater. He has cut his DVD buying from 50 a month to perhaps one, and is waiting until the Christmas sales to buy a high-definition television. He does not indulge much anymore in his hobbies of scuba diving and flying.
The challenge: give Kenny some sympathetic character traits.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Original Story, v2

If you enjoyed my post about commonalities among submissions to writing contests, you're in luck: WritersWeekly publisher Angela Hoy has pulled all the pieces together from the Fall 24-hour Short Story Contest.

Take a look -- read the story prompt, consider the original story you'd write, then look at the commonalities among the submitted manuscripts and read the winning entries. (Interesting ... I liked the 3rd Place entry best in both the Summer and Fall contests.)