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Changing Expectations and Infusing My Writing Part 1

Posted on September 10, 2011

One of my favorite brainstorming techniques I use in my writing and I teach my students is to create characters and situations that Change Expectations. With GRAHAM THE GARGOYLE, it meant taking the predictable notion that gargoyles hang out in high places and fly about with little anxiety and turning it upside down so I had a gargoyle who was an ardent landlubber. Presto! – Graham popped into being. I imagined a gargoyle afraid of heights. From there, the notion of gargoyles taking their first flight as a rite of passage took shape. Graham would be the most anxious of all in his class, what with his wings being so tiny and all.

This technique has served me well. I used it to create NORTON THE VAMPIRE. Since vampires can't get cozy with the sun, I thought it would be interesting to have a vampire who yearned for a job where sun exposure was a dealbreaker. The story of a young vampire whose dream of becoming a lifeguard at a beach popped into my head.

I encourage my students to generate stories in this way and they are always mighty successful. We've had porcupines afraid of pointy objects, mummies that are snappy dressers and even werewolf dentists. Although that last one is more of an Odd Pairing, another idea generator I have them use quite a bit.

Now with GRAHAM, there's so much of his story that's deeply linked with my own experiences. No, I don't have any relatives that scaled churches and took to bell towers as their final resting spots and last I looked my sister never created a science fair project that helped me outwit a bully, but there are creative tidbits that were fueled by my experiences nonetheless.

The second half of this post will share some of the details I used to inform my writing of GRAHAM. And if it nudges you into dropping a paltry 99 cents on a read you will surely dig, than I've done my sincere best.

SISTER'S RULE! Okay, Graham's relationship with his sister has been praised for its playful authenticity. It was a plethora of fun to write. When I cast Flenn, I had no idea she would be such a chatterbox and such a needy know-it-all. My own sister was never so abrasive. We got along fairly well. Looking back, I was probably a bit too physically tough on her. Slamming a door in her face and giving her a black eye with the doorknob is not something I'm proud of. All in all, we had a solid relationship, much like Graham and Flenn.

When I was writing the breakfast scene where Flenn forces her brother to listen to her volcano project report, I didn't have any idea she would reveal a key detail that would help Graham catch the bully Blord in a lie. But through the miracle process of letting the characters find their way within the plot, the plot revelation presented itself. Those happy accidents that look so planned after the fact make the writing process such an adventure. Graham does care for his sister beyond what she does for him and you'll see that so much more in the second book. Yep, looks like I'll be doing a GRAHAM sequel. It'll clock in around a hundred pages like the first one, and I plan on writing it right after TURNCOATS. I figure I can produce it in two months no sweat. The ideas are coming to me so much right now that I can't ignore it.

VOLCANOES GALORE! Part of the science curriculum up in Maryland focused on the three primary types of volcanoes: cinder cone, composite and lava dome. Thanks to my knowledge of their features, it worked itself smoothly into the airborne race Blord challenges Graham to.

PATCHWORK WORLDS I've already stated my love of the XANTH novels by Piers Anthony. I love the dimensions where diverse creatures exist in crazy-quilt fashion next to each other. It's probably why I have such affection for the JOHN CARTER OF MARS series and the old black and white FLASH GORDON episodes. I like that a kingdom of centaurs can be plopped down next to a haven for orcs. There are such ripe conflicts and interactions to explore when you put so many monsters and beasties together and ask them to play nice. In CASCADE that premise will become more prevalent as future books are written. In GRAHAM, I really focused on the gargoyles and trolls who live next to each other. In the second GRAHAM, you'll see the troll village and meet Ot's younger brother, Wensen. In NORTON THE VAMPIRE, you'll meet the shadowclans, all the creatures that call the night their home. In MARSHALL GODLING OF WAR, you'll see the big city of NEW ASGARD and meet street urchins mixing it up with a cosmic cast of gods and goddesses. Heck, lots of subterranean species will be revealed when I get around to doing THE FLYING MUMMY volume. The Cascade books are so quick to put together that it should be no problem to do a new volume of that series as I keep doing a new project each year to pitch to agents.

Wow, looks like I have a ton more to say about items that relate to GRAHAM than I thought. Much more than I have time to put in one post. Check back next week for Part 2.


Comment by JOANNA MARPLE on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2011...
I gleaned a whole host of ideas from this blogpost. If I had an e-reader I would certainly drop 99c ;)
Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2011...
Yes, the whole changing expectations idea is a deliciously simple and effective concept!

Also, consider "spin-off" ideas. When I'm writing, I often brush across an idea that's buried under the weight of the main plot but could possibly be expanded into a novel of its own. Sometimes it's a tiny idea mentioned in passing, while other times it's a fairly large sub-plot that could be developed further. For instance, my LABYRINTH OF FIRE deals with Hal and his friends tackling the dragons for their own purposes and meeting the resident (undercover) human-dragon shapeshifter along the way... but what about a spin-off book about that particular human-dragon shapeshifter and how he infiltrates the dragon nest in the first place? Plenty of drama there!

I know that you, Brian, have done this on numerous occasions. It's all a natural part of your CASCADE world-building.

By the way, Joanna, you may or may not be aware that you can get free apps for any touch phone that allow you to buy and read Kindle and Nook books. Or you can download a free app on your computer that does the same thing. These days, you don't have to own a Kindle or Nook device to read Kindle or Nook books!
Comment by CARLA on MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2011...
This sounds like a fabulous brainstorming/writing exercise—I'm excited to try it! I bet your students love your class! ;)

Comment by SUSANNA on THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2011...
Graham sounds like a great character with an interesting story. Your students are lucky - your class sounds like fun!
Comment by WENSEN ABHAU on THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2011...
Guess that's my new name!
Comment by GABBY RYAN on THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2011...
Hi mr.C, whats up :D
Comment by DONNA K. WEAVER on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2011...
I enjoyed reading about how your came to your ideas. The process you describe is something I can duplicate. It's interesting where a story idea comes from and you realize you have to come up with a good read for that part of the story to happen, and then the tale is born.
Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2011...
Changing Expectations is a great way to generate ideas. When I do library talks or work with other classes as an author, it's the most popular technique I present. The kids can find it so easily in other works. I always point out the cowardly lion in THE WIZARD OF OZ as a prime example.

Anyone care to rattle off any other well known changing expectations they've encountered?

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