Finding Inspiration: Improbable Mandates and Lessons from Reverse DesignThere is nothing more terrifying than a blank page. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Infinite possibilities mean infinite choices, and infinite choices can lead to infinite indecision. We've all experienced that - the conundrum of brainstorming in the early stages of some creative authorial endeavor, where anything is possible and therefore any choice must be justified against the act of not choosing a universe of other options. It can be daunting, if not downright paralyzing. Hence, my advice for NaNoWriMo this year is to consider the merits of constraint on the creative process as a means of inspiring the creative process. Accept strange suggestions. Put up walls so that you can break through them. Wrap yourself up in a bizarre premise (or three) so that you can fight your way out of it.
One of the serial projects I work on is a series called "Gossamer Worlds" for the diceless roleplaying game Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, which is sort of a spiritual successor to Roger Zelazny's famous Chronicles of Amber. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it doesn't matter, just understand that every month my publisher wants me to write about 4,000 words creating one unique world in the infinite multiverse. Since the infinite multiverse is, well, infinite... I can write pretty much anything I can think up - any setting, any tone, any genre imaginable. Liberating? Yes. Challenging? Definitely.
For while it is nice to know I have the freedom to come up with anything, I find I work best when I am forced to fit my world into a certain mold - and with the Gossamer Worlds, the mold I select is a picture in a process we refer to as "reverse design". The tactic has its roots in some fairly business-y concepts of low-cost online publishing - in order to publish our little product on a tight timetable with minimal production costs and no delays, instead of writing something and then tasking an artist to draw cover art and interior art to our specifications, I take art that is already in hand and give myself the mandate: "Ok, self. This is the cover art. Write this world." And I do.
Sometimes the art is a picturesque fantasy vista, sometimes its a bizarre monster, and sometimes its way more abstract, but I've found that the weirder the picture is, the better. Usually, in addition to the picture itself, I come up with secondary guidelines based off of the picture, such as "Ok, this is Japanese Horror meets Alien Invasion meets Psychic Apocalypse." The criss-crossing restrictions of multiple genres and tropes challenges me to concoct a world where my bizarre conceptual chimera makes sense AND fits the picture. If this sounds insane to you, perhaps it is, but I've found that it's a lot easier for me to be creative when I'm trying to fight my way out of a corner (how to reconcile all these conflicting tropes) than it is to spontaneously generate an entire world from scratch.
The point is, assignments/restrictions/imperatives can be helpful.
In the novel-writing context, take for instance a writing prompt with a specific mandate. Being told "just write something, anything" is painfully unhelpful, while being told "write a 1,000 word short western fantasy where the protagonist is a steam-powered demonic cat" is much more likely to inspire a flow of ideas. Whether you stick with the prompt all the way through the project without deviation isn't as important as the benefit you've received from that initial spark that got you thinking, got you planning, and led you to that one character or one witty line you really do want to write a whole novel around.
When I was writing my first novel, Lost In Dream, sometimes I'd be stuck. I'd never written a novel before, so what the heck did I know? I'm really a seat-of-the-pants writer, so while I had a general idea about how the story was supposed to end and a few of the 'big reveals' I wanted to unveil along the way, I hadn't planned or outlined all the steps to get me from chapter 1 to chapter 12. I just knew that stuff had to happen. When I got stuck, I'd ask my (at the time) three-year-old daughter what I should do next and try my best to stick to exactly what she said. Once she pointed to the wall of her bedroom, where there was this decal of a brown tree with pink leaves, and then talked about eating pea pods with grandpa, so I put a magical pink tree hung with pod-like cocoons in the next chapter as a powerful plot device. One time she screamed "Go Knights!" into my ear, so in the final climactic battle I had my young female protagonist yell that same thing to conjure an army of phantasmal knight-protectors to fight off an army of devils. She made lots of other suggestions, many of which I used, some of which I didn't, but no matter whether I ran with what she said or not I found the process of considering her ideas incredibly valuable.
Even if you're not writing high fantasy with unlimited potential for magical shenanigans (as I was and often do), this notion of accepting improbable suggestions and making them work can fit into any genre. Make a thing the most important thing in the world of your story, and bend your brain to think of how and why that's the case. Maybe the "fire-breathing green dragon" is a telltale carton of spicy Chinese food left out to reveal a lover's overnight betrayal in your dark romance drama. Maybe you can justify the can of "8 ounces skinless tomatoes" with a scene about an octet of flayed-alive overweight murder victims in your horror thriller. Think of that great story based off of a single name, "rosebud", perhaps something small and quiet spied out a garden window.
The seeds of inspiration can come from anywhere, but we know from what I just got done telling you advice like "be inspired by anything" is not helpful. My suggestion then is to try removing some of your own choice from the matter, so that you're not paralyzed by too many options. Choose your hypothetical cover art from a very small subset of existing artwork, or select it at random and run with it. Take a single writing prompt very seriously, or have a friend pull three writing prompts off the internet and force yourself to mash two of them together. Or accept some earnest advice from a toddler.
Good luck with NaNoWriMo coming up, and remember that a published trainwreck is a heck of a lot better than unpublished perfection. Accept your assignment, twist it until it squeals with all the sense-making, and get those words on the page!
About the Author
Matt Banach has been writing this and that for years, but Lost In Dream is his first novel. An avid gamer, his creations have appeared in Rite Publishing,'s Coliseum Morpheuon and the accompanying Faces of the Tarnished Souk series, various adventures and short stories of similar ilk, as well as the ongoing Gossamer Worlds line exploring the infinite multiverse of Lords of Gossamer & Shadow. When he's not writing, working, gaming, running, or cooking, he enjoys every moment with his lovely little family. He's pretty happy right now, and would like to thank his mom for all those books.
A man called Rube is on a perilous quest, searching this unhinged land for something more precious than life or sanity – his own lost child. Captive on a black ship crewed by the dreaded Men of Leng, he finds himself crossing the Slumbering Sea in chains, brought face-to-face with a mischievous blue monster who might just be his salvation – or his doom. Struggling to reunite father and daughter, their odyssey past the edge of reality reveals ancient evils, fiendish plots, and a trans-planar scheme which threatens the very foundation of Dream.
Bursting forth from Rite Publishing's epic Coliseum Morpheuon and the high-octane Faces of the Tarnished Souk, Matt Banach's debut novel blends the wonder of Lewis Carroll and the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft to produce a wicked and witty fantasy adventure with a bittersweet heart, testament to the enduring power of a parent's love.
Lost in Dream is available at Amazon.
The cavern was immense, its obsidian walls flowing with the black bilious outpour of thousands of pipes and tunnels, all draining down to pool in a network of channels beneath a patchwork floor of stone and iron grating. The Wishing Tree squatted in the midst of it all, its willowy white-and-rainbow branches drooping so low they sprawled out across the grated floor, curling and twisting in a thicket dusted with rustling pink leaves. The tree's hundred oblong pods rested on the ground or hung mere feet in the air, spread out like glowing pumpkins on the vine. Within the pods, the children slept or crouched or stared, captive in each pod's haze-shrouded confines. Surrounding the edge of the cavern, prowling about on hairy knuckles, a dozen or more of the Khan's fire-snorting hounds stood guard, looking alert and cranky. My eyes began searching for...
“A damn fool,” snarled a raspy voice behind me.