WRITING: Where do you get your story ideas?

I was asked on Quora: “What is your personal method for finding short stories ideas?” and this was my response:

I tend to combine past experiences and certain idiosyncrasies, and blend them into a story. To give you an example, this is my unpublished story Bonebag:
BONEBAG by Martyn V. Halm
Talons digging deep in her bony shoulder jerked Ange from pleasant dreams into cold dark reality. Muted green numerals floated in the dark bedroom to inform her that it was a quarter past two in the morning. Angrily she reached up, pried the fingers from her shoulder and turned to face her lover.
“Christ, Carla! It’s two in the morning, what the…”
A skittering sound in the kitchen made her swallow the rest of her tirade. Ange sat up and listened. The neon sign of the bar downstairs sprang on, blue light washing over the bedroom walls and the pale blob of Carla’s face, her dark eyes wide with fear.
Soft paws skittered along the length of the kitchen floor, followed by big paws that scrabbled for a hold. Ange could hear the claws gouge the linoleum floor as the cat wheeled around in pursuit of some ignorant rodent that had entered their apartment by mistake.
“That’s Felicia,” Carla whispered in a high strangled voice. “Your cat got something…”
Ange cocked her head. “Not yet. But she will in a minute. Now, can we go back to sleep? I have to be up at—”
“No, Ange.” Carla’s warm damp hand fell on her thigh and she could smell the sour smell of sleep on her breath. “Please, you got to do something.”
“Go to sleep.” Ange slipped back under the warm eiderdown, pulled the covers over her head as she turned on her side.
On the other side of the wall steel clanked against steel. Felicia’s food bowls. Apparently the pursuit had progressed into the bathroom.
“Ange!” Carla tugged her shoulder. “You know what she did last time!”
A couple of weeks back Felicia killed a mouse, opened the tiny rodent from throat to anus, and deposited the mutilated corpse on the floor in front of the bed, in obeisance to her mistress. Carla, who usually slept in, had the misfortune to get out of bed early. Still half asleep she put her foot in the gored mouse, her toes squishing into the juicy carcass. Yelling the whole apartment building awake, Carla had hopped on one leg to the bathroom and vomited all over the toilet seat while she removed the rodent’s entrails from between her toes.
“Just look where you put your big feet tomorrow,” Ange mumbled chagrined and turned on her side again. “And try to project your vomit into the bowl this time.”
“You know I can’t help it!” Carla took a deep shuddering breath. “Dead animals upset me.”
Upset was a mild term for the phobic revulsion Carla exhibited when confronted with a flattened hedgehog or a fish floating belly‑up. Her irrational hysterics spoiled walks along the beach and trips through the countryside. It put a damper on a pleasant walk in the woods when you had to hold your lover’s hair out of her face while she puked another meal behind a tree.
And still…
What bothered Ange was the suspicion that Carla’s abhorrence was mixed with fascination. Why else would her eyes scan the asphalt for roadkill? Or make Carla stand transfixed at the sight of gulls hacking an unfortunate crawfish to pieces? A slaughtered mouse in the house would keep her up till dawn.
And Ange with her.
“What the fuck do you want?” Ange turned around to face Carla. “You want me to help Felicia kill the stupid bugger? Is that what you want?”
“Just end its suffering.”
Ange whipped the eiderdown away. “I’ll make it suffer all right.”
The bedroom window was partially open and she was freezing her scrawny butt off, the cold waking her up completely. The neon sign flashed again, outlining her body in an almost pornographic blue nimbus reflected in the mirror in the corner of the room.
Where her parents found the audacity to call her Angelique was beyond her, for her appearance was anything but angelic. Her slanted green eyes narrowed as she viewed her reflection. Her thin frame with the pointed breasts, pelvic bones jutting out from her hips like handlebars, limbs strangely angular and bird‑like. She looked like she belonged in an enchanted forest, a malevolent pixie leading unwary travellers astray.
No wonder her nickname at school had been Bonebag.
The sign winked out again and Ange shivered as her feet touched the cold linoleum. She hurried across the kitchen floor and entered the bathroom.
After she closed the door behind her to keep the mouse in, she pulled the switch cord and shielded her eyes. The fluorescent strip light over the bathroom mirror flickered twice, then burned steadily, humming like an angry mosquito.
Felicia hunkered by the cabinet under the washbasin, her tail swishing from side to side. The cat didn’t even glance up at the light, her yellow eyes glued to the tiny creature hiding under the cabinet.
With her foot, Ange shoved the cat aside, but Felicia skirted behind her heels and took up guard at a different angle as Ange grabbed the sides of the cabinet and lifted it of the floor.
The mouse—startled by the rude disappearance of its shelter—spurted away, a small brown shape streaking across the floor for the back of the toilet bowl.
Felicia pounced and looked confused.
Ange noticed the trembling mouse behind the mop. Small fella, this time. An inch and a half at most, its tail three times the length of its body. Ange grinned, took the handle of the mop and shook it. She could see why Felicia liked this game so much.
The mouse didn’t like the game at all and fled into the shower stall. The rodent realised its mistake too late, for there was nothing to hide behind in the pristine cubicle. And the holes in the drain were too small to pass through, even for a tiny mouse like this one.
The petrified mouse cowered in a corner, while Felicia stalked it at leisure, her furry belly low to the ground, clearly savouring the moment. The mouse stared in the cat’s menacing yellow eyes, captivated like a rabbit in the bright light of a poacher. With her furry chin lowered to the tiled floor, Felicia stretched forth a tentative paw and nudged the mouse as if trying to spurn it into action. The mouse scurried back into the corner, reared up on its haunches and froze. Even the whiskers and the nose stopped moving. Its beady eyes, shiny with fear, glazed over. The mouse wasn’t petrified anymore. In mortal fear, its little rodent heart couldn’t handle the stress and stopped pumping.
Scared to death.
Felicia tilted her furry head. Surprised by the unexpected demise of her prey, the cat sat up and eyed the motionless rodent warily, her quivering ears twisting back and forth. With blinding swiftness, the cat lashed out. Her stiff paw whacked the mouse like a golf club and made the stiff rodent skid the entire length of the shower stall, until its diminutive corpse came to rest upended against the wall. Felicia uncoiled and pounced, coming in for the unnecessary slaughter.
Ange held the cat back by the scruff of her neck and picked up the stiffening mouse by its long tail to study the tiny creature. Its eyes—small black nodules bulging from the springy grey‑brown fur—were dull and lifeless. A tiny circle of blood had formed around the left nostril. Its slightly parted jaws revealed small yellow incisors. The tiny front paws were raised to its tiny chest like a dog begging for a morsel.
Ange opened the bathroom window to throw the corpse into the dark gardens three stories down. Felicia jumped on the toilet seat, her yellow eyes riveted on the dead mouse. Ange grabbed her cat by the neck and they both looked at the tiny dead creature swinging in the cold November air.
“Ange?”
She didn’t drop the mouse, but pulled back her arm and closed the window.
“Ange?”
Ange opened the bathroom door, noted the soft yellow light of the reading lamp over the bed shining into the dark hallway. The bedroom looked warm and cozy and here she was standing cold and naked in the freezing bathroom. All because of that stupid bitch and her necrophobia.
“What is it?” she yelled back.
“Is it… dead?”
Ange looked at the tiny corpse dangling from her fingertips. “You can say that.”
“Don’t forget to wash your hands, okay?”
Jesus H. Christ. Why had she ever shacked up with the stupid cow? She could have been lying in her warm bed. Felicia could have enjoyed her kill. Holding the mouse aloft in her right hand, Ange turned on the tap with her left and looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. The corners of her mouth, her most distinctive feminine feature, were turned down. She touched her full lips, so out of place in her narrow face. Stroked the sensitive skin, the tiny corpse in her other hand momentarily forgotten.
Felicia meowed and swatted the air under the swinging mouse.
Ange had a mind to take the mouse back into the bedroom and ask Carla to check if the tiny rodent had really kicked the bucket. An impish glitter filled the green eyes looking back at her from the mirror and her wide mouth curled into a wicked grin.
She took the fragile corpse between her fingers, felt the bones under her fingers. A little bonebag. Ange opened her mouth and placed the mouse inside, facing out. Tilted forward on her tongue, the tiny paws and the small furry head stuck out over the lower hedge of her white teeth. It looked like the mouse lived in her head and her mouth was its balcony. Staring into the eyes of her reflection, Ange closed her mouth gently to keep the little corpse in position. To keep the inside of her lips from touching the mouse, she had to pout lasciviously. Ange turned off the tap, switched off the light and left the bathroom. Her step was light as she padded to the pool of light in the bedroom.
Felicia followed closely, rubbed her furry body against her moving legs.
Carla sat in the middle of the bed, hugging Ange’s pillow against her breasts. Her dark eyes searched her face.
Ange stopped at the foot of the bed and kneeled on the eiderdown, pinning Carla’s legs under the covers. With a seductive smile around her pouting lips, she came slowly forward over the bed, supporting herself on her hands, trapping her lover under the eiderdown.
“Did you throw it out of the window? I heard—”
Ange shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on Carla’s.
“No?” Carla looked worried. “You didn’t throw it in the trashcan, did you? I can’t…”
Ange leant forward and opened her mouth, arched her tongue under the small paws and moved the mouse up and down behind her teeth.
Carla blinked and focused on the dead mouse wobbling in her lover’s mouth. Her huge dark eyes widened in horror and she backed away until her back was against the wall. Ange closed her mouth, rocked back on her heels, pointed at her throat and swallowed thickly.
Carla’s eyes filled with revulsion and she broke away, threw herself off the bed. She bounced hard with her elbows on the carpet as she tumbled in a heap on the ground. Loud retching noises came from her mouth as she grabbed the door frame to support herself as she stumbled off to the bathroom.
Ange rose from the bed, opened the bedroom window and spat the tiny rodent corpse into darkness. The dead mouse dropped three stories and landed with an audible thud on the sidewalk. She hawked up a gob of saliva and spat into the blue neon night.
Wiping her mouth, Ange climbed back into the warm bed. She thumped the pillow back into shape, turned off the light and listened to Carla vomiting in the bathroom, then smiled to herself and pulled the warm eiderdown over her head.
Copyright: Martyn V. Halm. All Rights Reserved.

Now, I came up with the idea for this story because three things about this story are real experiences:

  • My mother has extreme necrophobia, like Carla in the story. Her revulsion to dead animals borders on hysteria and used to make me extremely angry at her when she would scream like she’d broken her hip when it was just the cat bringing home a dead bird.
  • I once got out of bed and stepped into an opened carcass of a mouse, lovingly laid out by my cat. I wasn’t revolted, like Carla, because I recognised that the cat gave me a gift. I was her master, so she gave me an offering. I praised my cat and pretended to eat the mouse, then – when she wasn’t looking – I tossed the carcass out the bedroom window for scavengers in the gardens to enjoy. And I recall thinking how my mother would’ve been in hysterics if she had stepped in a dead mouse.
  • And I was woken by the sounds of my cat stalking a mouse in the bathroom, where the events happened like in the story – I lifted the bathroom cabinet and the mouse fled into the shower stall, from where it couldn’t escape. It sat back on its haunches watching as my cat stalked into the shower stall, and then the mouse just died. My cat had the same response as Felicia – she was surprised and disappointed, then wanted to bat the mouse through the bathroom, but I intervened and picked up the mouse, studying it briefly before tossing it out the bathroom window.
Ange is modelled on one of my ex-girlfriends, who looked like a beautiful pixie. I hope she doesn’t mind that I turned her into a lesbian with a wickedly horrible sense of humour.
Everything else is pure imagination.
So, tell me, where do you get your story ideas?
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WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book

From a discussion on writing blurbs (also known as the pitch), I’d like to share some of my ideas on a ‘formula’ for writing a pitch.

The difficulty with writing a pitch is that most novelist have trouble figuring out how to ‘sell’ their book. I’m taking the blurb of my novel Reprobate as an example on how write a pitch:

First things first, the blurb is not a synopsis of the book, but the blurb has to provide incentive for the reader to read the book.

What is also useful if you write the blurb like a pitch, with three different stages:

Stage one, the elevator pitch: Describe your book in one sentence, preferably less than could be spoken in one short breath. For example: Hungry white shark terrorizes beach community. Lone undercover cop battles terrorists in highrise office building.

Stage two, the story pitch: Try to tell, as succinctly as possible, what happens in the first part of the book that sets up what will happen next.

Stage three, the promise: This book is X genre and part of a series. The author is a gynecologist and therefore qualified to write about this subject. This book is highly recommended for easily excitable readers with short attention spans.

If your three stages work well, the first stage poses a question that is answered in the second stage with another question that is explained in the third stage.

My ABNA pitch (in 2010) for Reprobate was:

REPROBATE is the first novel in a series featuring female commercial assassin Katla Sieltjes, a specialist in making homicide appear as ‘deaths without suspicious circumstances’. The setting of the story is the Netherlands, in particular Amsterdam.

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience Katla Sieltjes views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her alias Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with principals through electronic means, all to protect her identity.

Resigned to remain single for the duration of her career Katla meets the enigmatic blind musician Bram Merleyn when he enters the gallery where Katla has just killed the owner. Deciding that the blind man won’t make a reliable witness, Katla spares his life. After stalking the blind man to gain information whether he is truly harmless, an opportunity presents itself for a new introduction and Katla becomes intimate with Bram who is unaware of her real occupation. While the relationship between Bram and Katla blossoms and starts to affect both their lives, the suspense mounts to exciting heights as Katla accepts a difficult high-risk assignment from an unreliable principal – not only her possible exposition and fragile relationship with Bram are at stake, but her very life is in peril as Katla scrambles to get back to zero.

Through the developing romance between Katla and Bram, and their interaction with a supporting cast of unusual characters, the reader gains insight in the business of a commercial assassin as well as detailed knowledge about the life of session musicians; local information about the famous Dutch capital; the narcotics trade; motorcycle gangs; mehndi bridal tattoos; martial arts; and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The strength of REPROBATE lies in authentic details and psychological depth of the characters, mixed with fast-paced action and a realistic plot.

My final description for Reprobate follows my formula, but uses text from the pitch:

Assassin Katla breaks her own rules when confronted with an unusual witness…

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

This e-book features a glossary.

You can see the repeated elements. And it’s a lot shorter, because pitches to agents are 150 words max, while ABNA pitches are (were?) 300 words max.

Analyzing your pitch/blurb:

Take the first part of the blurb from Reprobate:

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

If you analyze this blurb, you see:
Who is the protagonist? Freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, who considers herself ‘blessed’ by being unburdened by a conscience. So she kills without remorse, which is not a common trait in a protagonist.
What does the protagonist do (what is the status quo? She lives a solitary life, apparently enjoys killing for profit, and takes great pains to remain anonymous
What is the conflict that changes the status quo? A blind man walks into her crime scene, and Katla breaks her own rules and spares his life. And Katla becomes dissatisfied with her solitary existence.

That ‘conflict’ happens in the first of fifty chapters. So, you don’t need to ‘tell the whole story’. Just give a reader enough that they may think, ‘hey, this might be interesting’.

The second part of the blurb is:

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, computer hacking, the art of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The second part is the ‘promise’. What can the reader expect? The first book in a series (so if they like it, there is more), the heroine is unusual (a remorseless killer is often the antagonist, but rarely the protagonist), and she’s not the only unusual character.
Amsterdam is famous all over the world, but the blurb offers a rare glimpse in the local culture and information on a host of other topics, which may or may not be unknown/interesting to the reader. And it contains brutal violence (so the reader won’t think it’s chick-lit and complain about the violent bits).

What the blurb doesn’t do is tell what happens after Katla breaks her rule. Breaking rules is always a risk, and the reader can figure out that there’ll be consequences. Only, to know the consequences, they’ll have to read the book.

If you apply the analysis to your own blurb, see if you can figure out what you’re telling and what not.

Other articles on writing blurbs:

Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb.

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REVIEW: Six Dead Spots by Gregor Xane

Six Dead SpotsSix Dead Spots by Gregor Xane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disturbingly funny, or hilariously disturbing, Xane’s wonderful Six Dead Spots chronicles the protagonist’s floundering descent into madness when Frank discovers first five, then six spots on his body where there’s no feeling. Frank finds out that the ‘dead spots’ have something to do with a recurrent dream that grows ever more difficult to grasp. Using self-medication Frank tries to penetrate the dreams to solve his problems, but as his health deteriorates his friends and family are trying to help him. Or are they? Nothing is clear to Frank anymore and he risks his life and sanity to solve the puzzle.

Xane has a wonderful imagination and this quirky story is both original and enthralling. Like Joseph Garraty, Xane proves himself to be one of those self-published authors whose quality and originality supersedes that of many trade published peers.

Recommended to readers who enjoy quirky horror stories.

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REVIEW: Not all Self-Published books suck: VOICE shines, darkly…

VoiceVoice by Joseph Garraty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Enjoyed this novel very much. From the prologue, that gets the chills going, the story plunges the characters in a downward spiral that is both inevitable and horrifying. The realism in the struggle of the musicians trying to carve out their own niche, getting into deep trouble by their ambition adds verisimilitude in a story that could’ve been ridiculous if it hadn’t been so well-crafted.

I recommend this story to anyone who likes well-crafted horror stories set in the world of art and music.

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OPINION: Why Bother?

Writing is an outlet for me. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, but there’s not always someone around who has the time and patience to listen, so I write my stories down, just to have something tangible. My first novel had been pretty much ready for a decade, before I published it last year.

The people who can be bothered to read my work are glad they did, and encourage me to write more books. Not that I need their encouragement, as I would write my stories even if I wouldn’t be able to publish them, just to have them in material form, instead of telling them to myself in my head. Still, I enjoy receiving accolades from reviewers and beta readers.

My sales are not impressive, but I’m not that interested in bestsellers and being a flavour of the week. I’m in the storytelling game for the long haul. By all accounts, my characters remain present in the minds of my readers after they close the books, which is exactly what I wanted. Before I published the Amsterdam Assassin Series, people would see me writing and ask me what I wrote about. Now, I can just send them a link to my blog, from where they can sample or buy my books. So, I guess I will keep publishing my books, and writing more books.

I know there are 350,000 books published annually, and getting noticed is hard, so it might take until the third or fourth book is published before my sales go into the triple digits, but I honestly don’t care too much about that aspect of being a writer. I’d be doing this anyway. My only expense is hiring a graphic artist to make the covers, since I suck at that. And I found a student who can make my covers look reasonably professional without breaking the bank.

Do I ever have moments that I’d quit? I’ve had slumps and I found I became harder to live with when I stopped writing, for whatever reason. So quitting isn’t an option if I want to stay reasonably sane. Or, at least, not get any weirder than I’m now. And writing also gives me excuses to indulge in research, which is great fun. At least, if you enjoy looking at corpses getting eviscerated, destroying a leather punching bag with a Bic Crystal ballpoint pen, following a tameshigiri seminar to learn how to decapitate a body in one cut of a Japanese sword, or slaughtering a pig with a tactical folding knife to check if it can really handle the abuse of a brutal killing.

So, I guess I’d be writing and publishing far into the foreseeable future. And I hope you join me.