Getting Ideas: Emperor Joshua Norton

For me, ideas tend to spray off of things I see or hear, like sparks shooting off when you hit flint and steel together. I was happy to discover recently that author Christopher Moore works the same way — at least sometimes.

Writers hone their craft by reading. Recently, I stumbled across the existence of Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed emperor of San Francisco. This legendary figure walked the streets of his city from 1859 to 1880. During his reign, he issued public proclamations that ranged from a demand for Sacramento to clean its streets to the dissolution of the US Congress.

Local businesses allowed him to eat for free, and he had complementary use of the city’s mass transit. Citizens would even buy his 50-cent imperial treasury bonds. His dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, were exempted from city leash laws. At times, enthusiastic new police officers or dog-catchers would arrest a member of the trio — to citywide outrage. When he died, donations sent him off in style with a procession that extended over two miles.

The Emperor, Bummer and Lazarus are recurring characters in Moore’s San Francisco vampire trilogy: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. Maybe I’m the only person for whom this is new information, but there it is.

Ideas are everywhere. It’s just a matter of feeding them when they scratch at the door.

You can find out more about Emperor Norton I of the United States of America at the San Francisco History Encyclopedia page in his honor. Stuff You Missed in History Class has a great podcast on him as well.

As a final note, another author wrote Bummer’s obituary. A (then) little-known journalist by the name of Sam Clemens.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

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Accountability, Week Eight

Second to last week of my productivity drive. I started a bit behind, but got a payday from a forgotten source to put me over the hump. I hope this is helpful to somebody, rather than just serving me and myself alone.

  • Total Earnings Goal: $3,000
  • Total Earnings This Week: $3,275
  • Earnings Compared to Benchmark: 109%
  • Total Earnings So Far: $17,420
  • Progress Toward Long-Term Goal: 87%
Thanks for listening.

On Work Habits

Howard Tayler is the author of the Schlock Mercenary webcomic and co-host of the Writing Excuses podcast. In his blog, he talks about everything from his family to the business or writing to movie reviews to his con schedule. He’s also got a good handle on using Twitter to stay in touch with fans.

A recent post on his blog celebrates a milestone in his life as an author, and also serves as a great example of how professional work habits and a disciplined approach are ingredients in success as a professional writer. Check it out, then stick around for more than 10 years worth of his body of work.

Thanks for listening.

Friday Fun: Wings of Defeat — Another Journey

Some writers choose fiction. Others, nonfictions. Others do ad copy, scripts or humor. Another kind of writer does documentaries, working with words, sound and image to create compelling films. Risa Morimoto is one of these writers. Her award-winning Wings of Defeat chronicles the story of kamikaze pilots during WWII.

Filming this documentary, Risa interviewed several survivors of kamikaze attacks. This included Fred Mitchell and Gene Brick, two sailors on the USS Drexler — a destroyer sunk by kamikaze on picket duty between mainland Japan and Okinawa.

By an amazing set of circumstances, Fred and Gene were invited to Japan to take part in the events surrounding the release of Wings of Defeat. They met with survivors of the kamikaze corps, drank sake and visited several cities. It’s a story of forgiveness and peacemaking that can literally bring a tear to my eye. Here’s a snippet of Another Journey, Risa’s documentary of that part of the story.

If I’d written this story, it would have been rejected as too unrealistic. As a side note, Gene Brick is my grandfather. I’m rather proud of him for having the courage and kindness to do this.

Thanks for listening.

Ideas for Nonfiction (Part Two)

Continuing our list of ways to come up with topics for nonfiction articles, which you can then pitch to magazines and turn into fees and a portfolio…

Springboarding

I touched on this in detail in an earlier post. Keep a note pad handy while researching and writing your assignments. A fact might grab your attention, but be inappropriate for your current assignment. A small section of an article might have enough juice to warrant a full-size piece of its own. Maybe your article for a regional magazine could be recast to suit the needs of a local, or national, publication. If you jot down a reminder, you can come back to these ideas later and pitch them as unique stories.

Library Time

If all else fails, go to your local library or friendly neighborhood bookstore. Spend an hour or so skimming through magazines and reading what kinds of articles they’ve published lately. Think of related, but unique, ideas that will suit them. If you want to write for magazines, you should be reading them anyway. You can combine this idea with your personal expertise and a mind map for ferocious onslaught of idea generation.

The Shower

From what I’ve been told, I’m not the only person who does his best thinking in the shower. I don’t know why, but it seems like humans do their best thinking wet. Your omnipresent, ever-ready notebook will get ruined in the shower. A grease pencil or kids’ shower crayon won’t. I keep one in the little caddy, between my razor and the shampoo. If I’m struck by inspiration, I scrawl it on the shower wall and jot it into my notebook when I’m finished.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’m certain others have their own methods, and I’d love to see some in the comments.

Thanks for listening.

Ideas for Nonfiction Writing (Part One)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This question is normally associated with fiction writers. I think it’s Harlan Ellison who tells people that he subscribes to an idea service. Coming up with ideas for nonfiction articles is just an important, and in some ways harder. The nonfiction article market is enormous — and growing every day with the proliferation of internet content. All we need to do is come up with compelling pitches. Here are some of the methods I’ve used to get ideas and turn them into money. I’ll bring more to your attention in a later post, since this is a rich topic I could write about all day.

Plumbing Knowledge and Experience

Everybody is an expert at something. I got my start writing self-defense and safety articles as an adjunct to running a karate studio. I sold insurance for a while, and recently did the math to discover I’ve made more money writing about insurance than I did selling it. Industry and special interest publications are the best market for these, especially if you can apply your special knowledge to a related interest. I’m a middle-sized fish in the martial arts pond, which means I had to fight to get my stuff in Black Belt. Parenting magazines, on the other hand, eat my family safety stuff up. This may be the best way to break in to the writing market, since you’re selling your existing expertise rather than asking somebody to take a chance on a thin portfolio.

Mind Mapping

This is the shotgun approach to idea generation. Start by writing a word at the center of a piece of paper. Draw branches off that word, each with a detail or related subject. Draw further branches off each of those branches, filling the page with words and concepts. Some of them will remain words, while others will blossom into full story ideas. This is the method I use for blog subjects. It works well for general brainstorming, and for expanding on basic areas of expertise or interest.

Pre-Orders

Some ideas come to you prepackaged. The freelance writing job sites (more on these in another post) rarely have ads for general writing. Rather, they have ads for somebody to write about a specific — sometimes very specific — topic. The current boom of content mills is based on writers accepting prepackaged writing assignments based on common search engine queries. Small business owners want blogs written to topics that interest potential clients. If you’re a quick researcher, this is an opportunity for nearly limitless work at a pretty good wage.

I’m eager to hear your ideas, as well. Please comment with some tricks you’ve tried.

Thanks for listening.


Time Alone, Part One

Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs “a room of her own.” This is true of writers, too, but you don’t need your own office. Our house is pretty big, but I share it with my wife, two children, two housemates, a dog and two cats. My “office” is literally a recycled cubicle set up in our living room. No door, but the walls form a kind of symbolic barrier. It also helps that, during the day, the house is empty except for myself and our baby son — who is kind enough to sleep for four to six hours of my work day.

With summer coming up, I’m going to need a new plan. As much as my family tries to respect my writing time, it’s hard for them to leave me out of what’s going on. It’s equally hard for me to want to be left out. Last summer, my wife — who is a public school teacher — would take the kids to the park during my work day to give me the time I need. We might do that again this summer, or I might move my computer into the bedroom and close the door for a few hours each day.

The point is that writers, like everybody else, perform better when we are allowed to focus. Tapping away at your laptop in the middle of a busy family evening isn’t conducive to focus. Neither is working at the local library. We all have our own flow style and work habits, but everybody needs some time for uninterrupted writing.

I’m curious: for those of you who write at home, what sorts of things do you do to ensure that “you time” to get your work done? I’ll answer with some of my other methods in a couple of days, but I don’t want to muddy the waters with my opinions until I hear from some of you.

Folks who read this, but aren’t writers, I’m interested to hear how you secure time for yourself when it’s at a premium — either at home or at work.

Thanks for listening.