It’s In The Bag

It’s a very simple, but effective premise; your character finds something he wasn’t expecting to find, and is faced with a moral dilemma. The 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and A Simple Plan (1998) adapted from the novel by Scott B. Smith are both based on this simple concept. In both cases the main character finds a bag full of cash. These are excellent examples of beginning with the question “What if?” and then thinking about the worst possible outcomes. You’re basically giving yourself the freedom to be paranoid.

Starting with this one idea, finding something unexpected in a bag, has immense potential. What if the coach of a professional soccer team is organising the team’s equipment before a game and finds a severed head in one of the equipment bags? Who put it there? How did that bag get mixed with the team’s equipment? Was it there to send a message to someone on the soccer team, who owes serious money to a very aggressive loan shark and/or the mafia?

Is your novel or short story a Western? A bag full of cash could fall off a wagon, or stagecoach. Are you writing a science fiction screenplay? An extra crate could be found in the hold of a deep space cargo vessel, containing an unusual device. What happens when a member of the crew tries to activate it, and is successful? Does she find herself in another galaxy or dimension?

To ratchet up the tension, you can have your character do the right thing and still end up in a life threatening situation. He finds a large cache of cocaine and calls the police. Unfortunately for your character, a crooked cop takes the cocaine, but doesn’t drive it to the station or record that he’s taken custody of the illegal drugs. A short time later, members of a drug cartel, who owned the warehouse where the drugs were found, arrive in the city. Now, the corrupt police officer needs to kill your character, before the cartel members talk to him.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. The next time you’re not sure where to go with a story, try asking these questions: What could my character find, that would complicate her life? What could my character find, that might get him killed? What could one of my characters find, that would send the story in an unexpected direction?

Keep writing, there’s still time to tell great stories in 2022!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Just One Idea….

You never know where inspiration will come from, or whether you’ll have the same idea twice. It’s essential, therefore, to get into the habit of recording your creative ideas and make sure you don’t forget them. Every scene you imagine, every character that pops into your head, has the potential to be developed into a complete story.

A few years ago I was walking to church when the final action scene for a Police Thriller filled my mind. (You’re a writer, you know what it’s like, that mini-theatre in your head!) From that one scene I started wondering how the cop got herself into such an unusual situation, and it eventually became a feature-length screenplay that I’ve submitted to several film and television companies.

The good news is you don’t have to worry if your schedule prevents you from immediately focusing all your time and energy on writing. It seems that once you’ve taken the step of writing an idea down, your subconscious takes over, filling in all the details. And, as more of the story unfolds in your mind, you’ll become eager to start writing, get into the flow, and immerse yourself in the world you’re creating.

When you have a creative mind, it feels like you never seem to have enough time to write, especially if you have a full-time job. (And regardless of how it may be treated by society, being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job too!) You can, however, consider it a good sign that you aren’t running out of ideas; that just proves that you have a healthy, active imagination.

It doesn’t really matter where the original idea may fit into the story, or whether it will eventually become a play, a novel, a screenplay, or a short story, since a good story idea can be adapted for just about any format. The short story you’re writing can be expanded to become a novel, or you can adapt the novel you’re writing as the basis of a screenplay.

You can start immediately, by recording your ideas in a journal, sending yourself an e-mail, or writing a note and sticking it in your purse or wallet. One great idea can change a writer’s life.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

The Stranger

It’s a useful habit to develop, when you see an interesting movie or television series title, look it up on the Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com. Scroll down to the Writing credits, which are listed directly beneath the Directing credits. This is a great way to discover authors you may not have known about. That’s what I did when I noticed The Stranger (2020) listed on Netflix. The series is based on the novel by Harlen Coben published in 2015.

It’s an excellent series, and unique, because it’s an American story, adapted for a British setting. The main character’s children play lacrosse in the novel, but play soccer in the series. (Apparently, soccer is referred to as football outside North America and the NFL would be called American Football. There’s also the CFL-Canadian Football League-with rules slightly different from the NFL.)

What I appreciate about casting in the United Kingdom is that the characters feel more like someone you might actually live next door to, or work with. There seems to be less stress on how good-looking someone is, and more emphasis on whether the person actually fits the role. Realistic characters, combined with the very real possibility of being the victim of an internet blackmail scam, and you have a story that draws you in. The novel is a page-turner, and the series is hard stop watching.

I was surprised I had never heard of this author before, because Harlen Coben (www.harlencoben.com) has the kind of career many writers dream of. As well as an impressive list of published books, several have been adapted for series by Netflix. Looking up The Snowman (2017) on the Internet Movie Database is also how I learned about Jo Nesbo, a very successful Norwegian author.

I realize that envy isn’t a healthy emotion, but it can be discouraging when making the transition from part-time to full-time writer feels impossible. I suppose the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do I love writing? If you do love writing, then there’s really no reason to stop. My plan is to keep writing until the funeral home employees take me to the crematorium, and I don’t complain about the heat.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Note: If you haven’t heard about it yet, there’s an interesting development in the self-publishing industry: Smashwords is being acquired by Draft2Digital. I have two eBooks with Draft2Digital (Hunting Teddy Bears, Jack: a Lady’s Cat) and one with Smashwords (What If? A Collection of Short Fiction by J. Paul Cooper.)

The Logline: A Starting Point

As it’s used in the film industry, a Logline is a one or two sentence description of the story idea for a movie. I’ve submitted screenplays to many film companies; some ask for the logline, a one or two page synopsis and the screenplay, others just ask for the logline and the screenplay, but they always ask for the logline.

A fun exercise to get your creative juices flowing, is to make up loglines for your favourite movies. A logline for Titanic (1997) could be: A young woman engaged to marry a rich businessman falls in love with a struggling artist, as the Titanic crosses the Atlantic Ocean on its doomed voyage. You’ve probably already created numerous loglines and didn’t even realize it at the time. Think of how many times you’ve watched a movie, then turned to a friend and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if….”

If you have a great story idea, but it isn’t clearly defined yet, a logline it a good starting point. It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be a screenplay, a novel, a short story, or a play for live theatre; it allows you to take something that is abstract and give it a tangible form that you can work with. I recently heard a bestselling science fiction author, who has experience in the film and television industry, say that if you can’t describe a novel in two sentences, it can’t be made into a movie. Considering how much can be earned by selling the film rights, that’s a good incentive to learn how to create loglines.

Note: I ended 2021 with some encouraging news about my scifi eBook, Hunting Teddy Bears. It received a 4 out of 5 rating on both Goodreads and Overdrive. Another copy was purchased by a library as well. I enjoy the small wins, while I’m still working towards the big wins.

Just Another Sermon?

A two hour movie screenplay is about 120 pages, but a writer may spend several months working on it. Unless it’s a larger church with more than one speaker, a pastor may have to write an outline for a forty-five minute sermon every week. And there is great responsibility involved, because the pastor isn’t just offering an opinion, he’s preaching the Word of God. He doesn’t answer to an editor for his words, he answers to the Lord Jesus Christ.

A pastor visits patients in hospitals, chairs board meetings, leads counselling sessions, officiates at weddings and funerals, attends church functions and, of course, answers countless emails and text messages from members of the congregation. And somewhere in that demanding schedule a pastor has to find time to spend with his own family, and write a sermon before Sunday morning. It’s no wonder that burnout is a constant threat.

Once a pastor finds time to write his sermon, he has to consider the constantly changing makeup of the congregation, as people move from one church to another. I’ve met people who were raised Roman Catholic in Pentecostal churches, and people who were raised Pentecostal in Baptist churches. A pastor also has to think about the level of biblical knowledge in the congregation, because there will new converts, as well as eighty-year-old Christians, who have been reading and studying the bible for over sixty years. The sermon has be understandable by new converts, yet still provide the mature Christians with useful information.

Because many sermons are now available over the internet, a pastor has to accept that members of the public may be offended by what he says. In John 21 Jesus, was referring to leading and instructing Christians while he was speaking to Peter. Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” He didn’t say it would be easy.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

Sixty or Six

According to http://www.celebritynetworth.com, author Ben Mezrich has a net worth of approximately eight million dollars. That’s not surprising, when you consider how many of his books have either been adapted for movies or are in development. The same is true for Michael Lewis, who (from the same source) has an estimated net worth of twenty-five millions dollars. They can afford to travel around the world to do extensive research and conduct interviews for their narrative non-fiction books.

I recently listened to Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. She spent months at a time on the road, living among Americans forced by economic hardship to live in vans and camping trailers. She was able to do that, because she’s a professional journalist and was being paid to write about her experiences. And when the book was adapted into a film in 2020, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Perhaps this is why so many part-time writers tend to write fiction. If you work in a warehouse or office to pay the bills, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to leave your job for several months, and pay for airline tickets, car rentals, hotel rooms and meals as you travel to do research and conduct interviews. I’m not suggesting it’s impossible, but it is beyond the reach of many writers.

I know several writers who would list themselves as full-time writers, but that isn’t an accurate description, because their income is a patchwork of various sources. They’re freelance editors, they teach seminars and courses, they coach writers, they create digital covers for eBooks, and they’re writers-in-residence for libraries and universities. Some writers are constantly applying for various government grants, but that isn’t a stable income, because grants only last for a limited time. One playwright I interviewed for a magazine worked as the director of a drama ministry at a large church, taught a course at a bible college and had a small theatre company.

I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking I’m not a real writer, because I don’t spend the majority of my time writing. But, as I’ve learned over time, that’s the case for most writers. What if you never make a living as a writer, is that a valid reason to stop doing what you have passion for? If that’s the case, then the golf courses would be empty, and no one would be playing hockey, baseball, basketball, or football unless they had pro-sport contracts.

There’s nothing wrong with hoping that someday you’ll write a bestselling novel or an award-winning screenplay, but even if that never happens, you can continue to enjoy the creative process. It doesn’t matter whether you have sixty hours a week or six hours a week to dedicate to your craft; if you love to write, you’re a writer.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

Writer-In-Residence

A Writer-In-Residence is a professional author who has a contract for several months or a year with a library, university/college, or writing organization. It’s usually a paid position that allows a writer to concentrate on a project, while at the same time interacting with the public. The public aspect of the Writer-In-Residence position could involve readings, seminars, workshops, and one-on-one consultations.

A one-on-one consultation with a Writer-In-Residence is an opportunity to have your work reviewed by a professional author, and it’s usually free. You can’t, however, expect a Writer-In-Residence to read an entire novel manuscript, so it’s more likely he or she will consider a chapter of a novel, or a short story. The Writer-In-Residence isn’t a substitute for an editor, but he or she can offer advice and encouragement. A one-one-consultation doesn’t necessarily involve writing that you’ve submitted, it might be a conversation about writing careers with suggestions about where to begin.

I’ve submitted materials to a Writer-In-Residence three times; two times I met with an author in-person, and once it was all completed through e-mail. The last author wasn’t a local writer, but a distinguished writer who was visiting the library for two days. He met writers for twenty minute, one-on-one consultations, but that was before Covid-19 changed the world and just about everything went online.

Does your local library have a Writer-In-Residence? If it does, there will be a section on their website with an introduction to the author, details of what type of writing the Writer-In-Residence will review, and the maximum word count for submissions. Send in a sample of your writing, ask some questions, and let a Writer-In-Residence help you to become a better writer.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

Pain Now, Rewards Later

Isn’t it ironic? The harder you work, the closer you come to reaching your dream, the more it hurts when the dream doesn’t come true. The next time you drive past a baseball diamond, consider how many of those players will start when they’re five or six, continue through high school and college, but never play in the Major Leagues. The same is true for all those students who dream of becoming doctors; even if you have scholarships and don’t finish university with a huge debt load, if your application to Medical School is rejected, it’s going to be devastating.

My dream was to become a lawyer, so the year I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Political Science), I submitted applications to thirteen Canadian Law Schools. The summer of 1987 was a long one, because I received thirteen rejection letters.

Here’s a question to consider: Do you think that all of the men and women who write the scripts for Medical Dramas are doctors? It would certainly make sense to have surgeons as consultants, to make sure they get the facts right, but the writers aren’t all graduates of Medical School. Another question: If you had the opportunity to work as a writer on a Medical Drama, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some basic understanding of Biology? Of course! The knowledge you gained following your dream to become a doctor, could be very useful for a writing career.

Just image that one day a great idea for a murder mystery, that takes place in a baseball stadium, comes to mind. If you’ve played baseball, you already have useful knowledge. All those hours spent on the baseball diamond learning the rules of the game, watching how coaches interact with players, and experiencing the fear of letting down your team, will help you develop believable characters.

Being rejected by Law School has inspired me to write a feature-length screenplay and a short story. I haven’t sold the screenplay, but the short story, “An Appointment With Life,” was published. You can find the link in the Published Writing section.

I hope that you’ll find some time to write today. The world becomes a more interesting place, when creative minds are at work.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

A Night at the Opera

The first exposure to science fiction that I remember, was Star Trek, the original series. I was supposed to be asleep, but I had slipped out of bed. I stared from the top of the stairs, while my father and an older cousin watched the show on a on a small black and white television below. Some guy with pointy ears, who I’d later learn was Spock, was leaning over and looking into a box. Canadians are supposed to be obsessed with hockey, but when I was young, if I had a choice between watching Hockey Night In Canada, or a science fiction series like Lost in Space, The Starlost or Space 1999, I’d be dreaming of deep-space travel, not winning the Stanley Cup.   

Although I was constantly creating stories in my mind, I didn’t give any serious consideration to writing until I was studying Political Science at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. The Introduction to Political Science class was using The Canadian Polity: A Comparative Introduction, a textbook written by one of my Professors, Dr. Ronald Landes. I thought to myself how impressive it was that his name was on the cover. At about the same time, Rev. Ross Perry, the Pastor of the church my family attended, had a short book published; Prime Ministers of Canada Quiz Book. It would be several years before I start writing, but the seed had been planted.

 Although I hadn’t heard the term yet, when I started writing short stories, they were Space Operas. Space Operas are basically stories that take place in space, without the need for a solid scientific explanation for what happens in the story. You throw a switch, there’s a flash of light, stars are passing by at blinding speed, and you’re somewhere in a distant galaxy. Star Wars is a classic example.

Space Operas offer freedom for the writer. If you’re writing a thriller about a cruise ship taken over by terrorists, you only have so many options. The first limitation is where the rescue takes place;  you might have the terrorists keep the cruise ship at sea, run it aground, or perhaps sail it up a river. In a Space Opera, the ship could travel through an asteroid field, sling-shot around a planet using it’s gravity, visit any planet or space station in the universe, or perhaps, travel through time. All the terrorists have to do is push a button, or throw a switch. If they have computer chips implanted in their brains to interact with the ship’s mainframe, or have telekinetic powers, they can just think about it.   

A novel that doesn’t take place in space has another limitation as well; all the characters are human. They may have different cultural backgrounds and motives, but they all have relatively the same degree of intelligence and physical strength. In the John Wick movies, the main character seems to survive the impossible, but it’s assumed that it’s because of his extensive martial arts training and natural abilities.  In a Space Opera, you can complicate the protagonist’s task, by introducing alien characters with strength, abilities, intellect and weapons an earth-bound hero is unlikely to encounter. You can also spice up your Space Opera buy having your heroine interact with artificial intelligence, either robots, androids, a ship’s operating system or all three. Data from Star Trek the Next Generation is one of the most recognizable android characters.

 It’s amazing when you think about it; you open a book or eBook, and in an instant you can be immersed in a new world. Why is it that we can read novels or watch movies, where events unfold that make no sense in our regular lives, and yet there doesn’t appear to be any conflict in our minds? It’s called “The Suspension of Disbelief” and I first heard it described by writer Fred Stenson while he was promoting his book on the craft of writing, Thing Feigned or Imagined.  It’s basically a contract between the author and the reader; as long as the writer doesn’t violate the rules of the world she’s created, the reader agrees to accept what occurs in that world. If the writer violates any of those rules, there has to be a valid reason. In the Harry Potter series, characters need some type of magical item to fly, like a broom or an enchanted car or motorcycle. Lord Voldemort can fly without the help of a magical item, but his character is known to experiment with magic to create exceptional results. He can fly without a broom, because he’s Lord Voldemort, so no rule has been broken.

 Space Operas also give freedom to the reader; an opportunity to escape from the stress of ordinary life. Consider a Nurse working in an emergency ward during the Covid-19 crisis. She never seems to escape the virus; as she drives to and from the hospital, there are digital signs on the side of the highway reminding everyone to social distance. At the entrance to every store where she shops, there’s a poster ordering shoppers to wear masks and social distance. At the end of a long shift at the hospital, she opens a paperback, or powers up her eBook reader and escapes into a Space Opera. A moment later, she’s walking through a space station. As she reads the author’s description, she looks around, watching aliens of every sort moving through its vast atrium, stars visible through the clear ceiling. Continuing through the station, she arrives at one of the docks where a deep space freighter waits for her to board with the rest of the crew. As the story continues, she finds herself on the bridge, as the freighter leaves the space station and accelerates past stars. How are they travelling at such high speeds? No need to worry! The Captain gives an order, the Navigator pushed a button, and the interstellar, plasma-loop, hyper-something drive will take you anywhere.    

If the author is a skilled writer, before she finishes the first chapter, the reader is prepared to stay with the crew and face whatever challenges come their way. The reader gets to know the crewmembers intimately, not just what rank or duties they have, but where they come from, who they admire, what their fears are, and who they want to hook up with.  

 In order to create a story, the reader has to work with the writer. An author writing a Space Opera can describe an alien character with orange pupils, but each reader will see a unique  shade of orange in her mind. That’s the wonder of the human imagination; as the writer gives a basic description of  a space station, or an alien world, the reader’s mind fills in the details to create images. If a million people read the same novel, a million distinct stories are created in their minds. It’s as if every single person has a movie theatre in his or her head, and they are all watching unique movie adaptations of the same story.

Today there are countless genres, from Magic Realism to Urban Fantasies. As for me, I still like to sit in the captain’s chair on the bridge of a starship and enjoy a Space Opera. Travelling across the universe is no problem; I’ll just push a button, and the reverse anti-matter, hyperkinetic, time-space, whatchamcallit drive will get me there.    

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

Take a Trip to….

Have you ever watched a video, as a Travel Guide describes all the major tourist destinations of a city? Do you remember the sickeningly sweet, cheerful voice? That isn’t helpful if you’re writing a novel, it’s much better to get the feel of a city, not the packaged version. Travelling overseas, no matter which end of the globe you’re starting from, is expensive. Although it’s much better to actually be there, you can be your own Travel Agent and arrange a virtual trip using Youtube.

Begin by choosing your destination, using “Flight To” or “Flying To.” With so many people taking videos during their vacations and business trips, you can decide which airport you want to start from and which airport you want to land at. You can watch a video recorded by someone sitting in Economy, or a video from First Class that includes a segment about the airport lounge and the luxurious amenities enjoyed throughout the flight. During the arrival, you can watch the aircraft land from a passenger’s perspective or the pilot’s point-of-view.

Now that you’ve arrived at your destination, how would you like to see the country? You can take a trip by car, bus or motorcycle. If you type, “Driving in….” you can find videos recorded during daylight hours, or at night, over quiet mountain roads, or through city traffic. Cars and buses don’t interest you? Not a problem, just type “Train ride,” or “Subway routes” with the name of the city or country, and you’re on your way.

While virtual trips will never replace a real experience, it is an option that wasn’t available to previous generations of writers. Watching a video recorded by a camera mounted on a vehicle’s dashboard or mirror, is about as close as you can get to sitting in the passenger seat, without spending a fortune to get there.

If you’ve been dreaming of a story set in a distant land, I hope this post will encourage you to write that tale, so we can all enjoy it. It’s your voice, your passion. Write.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper