Recurring themes

Like many great writers, Baby Duck has a favourite theme he returns to over and over again. His backlist would be the envy of many a writer, and all except one of his works – the classic Chickens in Space – features monsters. But even Chickens in Space is generously supplied with aliens, which is nearly the same thing.

He spends hours sometimes, drawing page after page, then he brings them to me to staple together and he dictates the text to me. If I’m really lucky I get to palm this job off on to Drama Duck, though then I worry that he’ll show it to someone and they’ll think I made all those spelling mistakes, so usually I do it. It can take an awfully long time sometimes, but its kinda fun too. His monsters are endlessly inventive, though the story usually follows a well-worn track, featuring a portal that opens into our world to let the monsters in, followed by lots of fights and explosions. Not too dissimilar to your average box-office smash, in other words.

The latest effort features a new twist – meta-text. After a dozen pages of the usual monster mayhem, I find something puzzling.

“Why is this monster being attacked by a giant pencil?” I ask.

The look he gives me says he’s wondering how someone can be that stupid and still tie their own shoelaces.

“He’s not being attacked by a giant pencil, Mum. That’s just showing people how to draw him.”

It’s so hard to get good mothers these days.

I find recurring themes in my own work too. Some are conscious. I’m fascinated by transformations, for instance. One of my favourite fairytales is Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid is another. I love a good makeover story, like Cinderella, or Grease. Shapeshifters and werewolves are great. (As long as they’re not too scary. I still have nasty memories of some werewolf movies I saw about 25 years ago, back when werewolves were still beasts and not just extra-hairy toyboys, a la the current paranormal craze.)

Some recurring motifs seem to sneak in there without me realising. I was thinking about my next Nano novel the other day and a lighthouse appeared in it. That’s funny, I wrote that other story about a lighthouse Why do lighthouses keep popping up? Which led to some sniggering about phallic symbols from the more juvenile aspects of my personality, but no enlightenment. As far as I’m aware, lighthouses mean nothing to me, so why do I keep wanting to write about them? The mind is a very weird place.

What are the themes and motifs that you keep returning to? Or what themes are you drawn to in the work of others? Weird enquiring minds want to know.

Alien invasion

I’ve just come back from a week in sunny Queensland, enjoying the theme parks on the Gold Coast. The ducklings had a marvellous time. Demon Duck is now known as Daredevil Duck, from her complete lack of fear on rides that scared even her daddy. I, on the other hand, am now known as the family chicken.

Surfers Paradise is a funny place. I’ve never seen so many hotels and holiday apartments in one place. And yes, I’ve been to Waikiki. Every single local resident must work in the tourism industry. I can’t imagine how they all make a living in winter.

And what is it with Irish pubs? They’re on every street corner, often cheek by jowl with a tattoo parlour. I tell you, Surfers is the tattoo capital of the world. Every second person you pass on the street has a tattoo. And every other person is a Japanese tourist — although many of them have tattoos too.

I saw everything from full-back tattoos to barcodes on the neck; from delicate swirls on girls’ shoulder blades to hideous things protruding from low-slung jeans that looked like the top of a particularly ugly grey lacy g-string (or thong, for the Americans out there). There were full sleeves, the classic barbed-wire thingy around the upper arm, coloured flowers, writing – even one guy with a girl’s name tattooed over his heart. I hope it was the name of the girl he was with.

Tattoos were particularly noticeable at Wet ‘n’ Wild, a theme park full of waterslides, since everyone was wandering around in their swimmers. It led me to realise that they weren’t really tattoos at all, but some kind of aquatic aliens. Lurking in the dark tunnels of the waterslides, they waited for their next host to swoosh by, allowing them to spread through the park and, ultimately, the world.

I figure they must have made planetfall somewhere near Japan, hence the large numbers of Japanese tourists already infected with the alien parasites. It makes sense that they’d pick an island nation like Japan, so they were never far from water. And Japanese tourists are everywhere – what easier way to spread than to hitch a ride with such seemingly innocent characters?

I haven’t figured out their motive yet, though. World dominion is so old hat. And why start in a place like Queensland, if that’s your goal? Queenslanders all seem to drive about 10 km under the speed limit, a habit which the Carnivore found very annoying. I suggested to him that the aliens may have come to teach the Queenslanders to drive faster, but he didn’t seem convinced.

At least the ducklings enjoyed helping me with the alien spotting. I’m glad to report that we all made it back unscathed, though there was one touch-and-go moment as I passed a tattoo parlour when the alien mindwaves almost lured me in.

Be on guard, earthlings. You never know where they’ll strike next.

Where writers really get their ideas

Writers get asked a lot “where do you get your ideas from?” Most answer with some variation on “ideas are everywhere – it’s not getting them that’s hard, it’s the execution that’s the tough bit”. Unless, like me, you blame everything on evil brain sloths.

But now I can reveal to you, in a world first, that there really is a place writers go to get ideas. They don’t want you to know, in case you stumble on the next best-selling premise before they do, but it’s there, a treasure trove just waiting to be tapped. Or dug up, or whatever you do with treasure troves. And isn’t “trove” a funny word? You never hear it on its own. It’s always part of a treasure trove. Why is that?

But I digress. Back to the world first. Drum roll, please.

Ideas are free for the taking right here on the Glorious Internet. There are sites like Seventh Sanctum that do nothing but generate ideas for stories, themes, characters – whatever your writerly heart may desire. In mere moments there I had the seed of several breathtaking new novels. Check these out:

The story of Dracula as an occult rags-to-riches story. Everyone’s looking for a new take on vampires. Stephanie Meyer, eat your heart out. Not just any old angsty emo teen vampires, but The vampire, re-imagined as an angsty emo teen, just trying to make his way in a cruel world. Suffering the slings and arrows and stakes of outrageous fortune as he claws his way up from humble beginnings to the top of the Transylvanian heap.

A fusion of the story of Noah and the story of Hansel and Gretel. I’ll be on to this one just as soon as I can figure out a way to get around the likely effect of 40 days and 40 nights of rain on that trail of breadcrumbs.

A fusion of the story of Cain and Abel and the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Kind of a Day of the Triffids thing happening here, where the Beanstalk tries to kill Jack because he’s always been the favourite.

A fusion of the legend of Samson and the tale of Lady Godiva. Great potential for conflict in this one. “What do you mean, cut off my hair? How am I going to stop those peeping Toms from seeing all my jiggly bits with no hair??”

The tale of Lady Godiva being about a group of dolphins. Okay, so Seventh Sanctum’s got a thing for Lady Godiva. But see, this one proves it’s all true. Clearly, David Brin gets his ideas here. Only instead of Lady Godiva his said something like “Star Trek with dolphins instead of people”.1

So there you have it. No, don’t thank me. I’m happy to provide a public service to all struggling writers. Besides, it wasn’t my idea – I snitched it from Jaye Patrick.

Just goes to show that there really are no new ideas in the world.

1. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get hold of a copy of his Startide Rising. Great novel!

Evil brain sloths

“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question that published authors get asked a lot. I only hope someday people will be asking me. Karen Miller thinks the question should be “where don’t you get ideas?”. Glenda Larke agrees, and thinks that if you have to ask the question, you don’t understand how writers’ minds work. Justine Larbalestier gets hers from evil brain monkeys. The common theme is that getting the ideas isn’t the problem – it’s the actual turning them into stories that’s hard.

I had an interesting encounter with my brain monkeys this week. They’ve always given me plenty of ideas, but only little bits and pieces. Once they’ve given me the first glimmering of a story they just roll over and go back to sleep, leaving me to figure out all the rest of it alone. I think I actually have brain sloths. Perhaps the monkeys were all gone by the time I got to the head of the queue.

Only this week I tried something different at Holly Lisle’s suggestion (I’m doing her How to Think Sideways writing course). Instead of leaping all over an idea the minute the poor thing poked its head up out of the subconscious and trying to force it into a story, I waited. Boy, that was hard. But it was worth it, because when that idea saw that the coast was clear it called all its mates out to join it and bang! the whole story fell into my head. Obviously I still have to write it, and no matter how complete the idea is, the writing is still where the hard work comes in. But it’s going to be really interesting to start writing a story without that sinking “I wonder what the hell comes next” feeling.

So now I’m thinking I may have maligned my brain sloths. Maybe they’re not a bunch of lazy no-good slackers after all. Maybe they’re just shy and I was scaring them away. Come out and play, little brain sloths! All is forgiven.

So. Where do you get your ideas from?