Kevin's Blog

Creative Assignment

I've got several things I want to write about this week, and I'm going to begin with how I and my classes ended up the school year. Then a few notes on some entertainment media stuff, and an update on how the summer is going. 

I've been teaching English, among other things, for seventeen years now, at the high school level for the last eleven. For the last five or six years, I've had only junior and senior classes.  This year, for a couple of reasons, I ended up with sophomores for the first time in a long time, three sections of them. (And no, I wasn't being punished. At least, I don't think I was.)  So through the course of the year we did all the usual stuff. Lots of short story reading (meant to get around to poetry but never did), some expository writing, To Kill a Mockingbird, Julius Caesar  and Animal Farm. Along with this, of course, we had end of the year testing to get through.

With all of that, I ended up with about three weeks to go and looking for something to do in a halfway light-hearted manner. Facing down three roomfuls of fifteen-year olds more than anxious to end the school year, I suggested we spend the last three weeks writing fiction. It's odd that, in seventeen years and spending most of my free time on short stories and books, I've never assigned such work. I crossed my fingers, not really sure how they would react but expecting an entire panoply of responses. 

Here's how we proceeded. First, we went over classifying fiction by lengths: flash, short, novelette, novella and novel. Then I gave them the option of, over the next few weeks, writing two pieces of flash fiction or one short story. Over the next few days, we did a quick review of the elements of fiction and how best to use them (such as be very careful of writing a short story in second person), and we were off, a whole bunch of high school students, armed with laptops, allowed to create whatever they wanted to.

With me biting my knuckles the whole way. More about how it turned out last week.

 

Salem -- So I've been giving this a try, based on the recommendation of a co-worker. Didn't get into it when it first came on because it just didn't look that exceptional. (Plus, as I've heard several people point out, the basic premise of the show is that the Salem witch trials didn't lead to enough executions?) But a couple of weeks into its run, this co-worker began talking about it, and it just happened that the next weekend WGN was running a mini marathon of the first five or so episodes. So I plumped down to check it out.

Not horrible, actually kind of interesting. Takes a while to get into because, at first, I had a hard time figuring out who all the people were and their relationships to each other. But several episodes in that kind of sorted itself out. I've watched the last three weeks or so, and while for me it's not quite to the level of appointment viewing, if it's on I'll catch it. Basically just giving it some time to see where it ends up going. (I'm assuming at some point soon the actual trials will become front and center plotwise.) And really, it's kind of easy to give a cable show that kind of breathing room because their "seasons" tend to be around ten episodes.

 

24 --  One of my long-time favorites, I was bouncing off the walls at the idea of this show coming back, even if only for a limited run. Last week, I think we're up to about four p.m. at this point, had two interesting points, one positive and one not so much. Couple of minor spoilers ahead.

First, the positive. Finally, finally an explanation of both what Jack had been doing for the last several years and how he came to be involved in the newest crisis in the first place. I've been scratching my head for weeks now as to how he seemed so healthy, whole and well-financed after being "on the run" for four years. I was also confused as to how he just happened to come upon "intel" of the drone plot. How so and from where? All that was explained, quite logically, in just a few minutes last week. Now, the show's making a whole lot more sense.

Not quite so positive? Come on, guys. You (the writers and producers) have had four years to relax, recoup and refresh. And we're right back to the "mole within the agency" trope?  Did we really have to go back to that again?  (Insert standard mountain lion joke here.)

 

Finally, summer work progressing pretty well, but I really hate doing the final polishing, tweaking of a long manuscript. (On the good side, 80,000 words is now down to about 78,000.) At the rate I'm going, should have The Litter ready to start making the rounds the first of the month. Not bad till you consider that I originally planned to have it all done by the first of this year. 

Stimuli

The worst question for any writer is the old chestnut, "where do you get your ideas?" The best answer I ever heard to this, and I really wish I could remember who said it, was "from my head." While that sounds like a snarky response, it's actually fairly on target. From a strictly linear point of view, where else would anyone get ideas for anything? 

A related question I often get is "do you dream up ideas and then write them down?"  I wish I could scoff and dismiss such an absurd proposition, but the fact is that has happened once or twice. Most notably with "The Old Dogs," one of my favorite and, in my opinion, most intense stories I've ever written. But once or twice, at the most, is all I ever got out of dreams. 

I've also done the free association thing from time to time where I grab a random volume of the encyclopedia (yes I still have print encyclopedias at home), open it up to no particular page and go from there. I take whatever article my eyes light upon, type it on the computer, then type the next word that comes to mind, and the next, and the next. Sometimes this works wonders, sometimes it doesn't pan out at all. Two stories that come to mind that evolved this way are "The Conduit" and "Eighty Feet Deep."

But my favorite of all is the absolutely random, out-of-the-blue inspiration that pops up in everyday life. To that end, here's a partial list of everyday things that have generated stories in my mind. In order to put myself in the best possible light, I'm only listing stimuli of stories that actually got published:

 

An odd yard sign in a residential area of town -- "The Sleeping Room"

A solitary wall, the last one standing from an old barn, in a field in Iowa - "Visage"

A focus group discussion on a cable news show -- The Group

A late night rerun of an episode of Married with Children -- "One Helluva Gig"

The Midwestern drought a few years back -- "So Deep You can Fall in 'Em"

A stray memory of visiting a state fair when I was very young -- "Remembering the Ape Girl"

Lying in bed in my new apartment, unable to go to sleep because of the sound of trains running all night long -- "Deliberates"

 

Now that I think of it, this wouldn't be a bad theme for a collection, linking up everyday stimuli with stories. 

newest update

Bookingly Yours web site has just posted a spotlight of "One Helluva Gig," including the first chapter and the Amazon link. It can be found at http://bookinglyyours.blogspot.com/.

 

Lynda's Story

This one's a bit different. Slashed Reads has just posted a fictive interview with Lynda Green, the aggrieved wife in "The Group." Goes into her backstory in a way that didn't fit into the novel and gives some justification for her bitterness.  It can be found here: slashedreads.com/character-interview-with-lynda-green-from-the-group/

Bookingly Yours

A book review/ blog website has just posted a spotlight on "One Helluva Gig."  It can be seen here:  http://bookinglyyours.blogspot.com/2013/11/guest-author-kevin-r-doyle.html

 

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