William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Stay Cold," Spawn of Monkeys

The three questions I get most often from people about my writing are:

1. Where do you come up with the ideas?
2. How do you find the time to write?
3. Where'd you learn how to self-publish?

In reverse order, #3 is easy to answer. There's really nothing to it, at least there isn't when you're publishing ebooks through Amazon. Pretty much everything you need to know, at least for getting started, is here: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A2VHRJZXET0TWT.

As for finding the time to write...what can I say? It feels like there's never time to write. I usually take an hour in the morning, between getting the kids off to school and starting my day job at 9:00, to work on my novel. But sometimes that gets hijacked, as when a critical rush happens on my day job or, as happened this morning, I'm publishing a new story and minor issues need to be fixed before I can promote the new work.

Where do ideas come from? Anywhere. Everywhere. Stephen King has joked about this several times. It's one of those impossible questions to answer. I had a Religious Studies teacher in high school who, when discussing meditation, said that the mind was like a monkey, constantly swinging and bouncing about inside your skull. The object of meditation is to still the monkey.

If I twist his metaphor a bit, thoughts are like monkeys. We all have these crazed troops of monkeys constantly performing their gymnastics in our heads. Some monkeys sit munching on grass in the background. Some swing right up to the glass and beat on their chest, demanding your attention. And sometimes, monkeys will be monkeys and do the Wild Thing. I find that most monkeys are private and carry on their hot monkey love out of sight in the bushes. But they do commingle, and every so often -- bam! There on the ground you've got a new, steaming baby monkey.

New ideas are like new monkeys. Most will never amount to anything. Oh, sure, they're fuzzy and cute, but it's not like they'll master sign language, compose Hamlet on the monkey exhibit typewriter, or lead an ape insurrection that wipes out humanity.

Except every so often, under a blue moon on a third Thursday, one does. One in every million or so conjugal visits between concepts yields the stem cell of a story. Like the swapping of monkey DNA, the process is largely random and unpredictable. But it happens. The trick is to be paying attention when that special baby monkey hits the ground, because the primates in your skull are an inattentive, rambunctious lot. No sooner is that new idea spawned than they're off banana hunting or foraging for fur lice, and little junior is long forgotten.

A writer will recognize a special baby monkey on sight. It creates an electric jolt in the hindbrain unlike any other. With the story I just published today, "Stay Cold," one such jolt literally arrived out of nowhere. I was at my desk, working on some article about computing. I'd been reading zombie lit for a few weeks while working on "The Followers," but I wasn't thinking about it then. Perhaps my eye fell across the weather report (it was March), and I thought about how unseasonably warm the winter had been. We'd had no snow. Wouldn't it be weird if my kids got snow on Spring Break?

And just like that, the baby monkey smacked to earth with a wet plop. As I sat here looking at my computer screens, I imagined a kid making a snow angel in a massive amount of snow -- so much snow that virtually everything had been buried under it. And frozen inside all that snow, just a few feet under the kid making his snow angel, there were bloody zombies, waiting. Just waiting...for the weather to get a bit warmer.

The image struck me as sublimely creepy. This monkey was special. I just knew it intuitively.

Central Elementary School in Roundup, MT
In any case, I immediately started poking at the idea. I needed a setting, someplace small and fairly isolated but still with modern amenities. A few minutes on Wikipedia led me to Roundup, MT, with a population of about 2,000. Thanks to Google Maps Street View, I was able to click through the streets and confirm that the hospital and shops where single-story. Central Elementary fit what I was looking for exactly. I found the house I wanted in the southeast corner of town. As happens so strangely often with writing, when the story is meant to be, the details all seem to snap into place with eerie convenience. Special monkeys do that.

However, not everything comes easily in those initial stages. By the time I finished first draft, I was left with a kid who had no purpose. He was just there, in this crazy, terrible environment, yes, but otherwise he was just floating through the events. I hadn't really asked myself who Tommy was or what he wanted.

In that first draft, Tommy was ten years old, which seemed natural because my eldest is currently that age. But my best friend and editor, Baron Schuyler, astutely pointed out that ten was too young for some of the actions in this story. Tommy had to be more like 12 or 13. The idea of 13 sparked another bout of monkey business in my mind, and only seconds later, I knew that Tommy was Jewish. He'd just turned 13. These events weren't just random; they were his trial of manhood. Suddenly, I had a real story about a real kid in an unreal, incredibly terrible situation.

Enough said. I'll be back soon with a look at how the cover for "Stay Cold" evolved. For now, I hope you'll bundle up, give the tale a read, and have a good shudder.

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