The Writer and–Ooh, Shiny!

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I was going to title this post the Agony of Choice, but let’s be real. No one wants to talk about agony, right?  And we are all familiar with “Squirrel Syndrome.”

Sometimes a shiny is just a shiny. It attracts our attention and we wander after it as happily as a child chases a butterfly. However, we are soon back with our project, the shiny object now a mere smile on our lips as we forge ahead on our original track. To carry the analogy further, most of us know that catching those butterflies can damage them, so we have learned to wait patiently for them to land on their own.

Sometimes, though, the shiny (or squirrel, depending on your preference) is a mask. It’s not just when we can’t decide between existing options . . . this character or that plot, this project or that. Those moment s of indecisiveness are hard enough when the choices are clear-cut. It’s when we have too many really good ideas worth pursuing to settle on any of them. It’s like being in a field filled with butterflies, mesmerized and still, as they flutter, land on us, flutter again. It’s a beautiful place to be, but man is it hard to pick a favorite, you know?

When so many ideas have so much potential, it feels so impossible to pick just one. So we stand there in the agony of choice.

It’s all well and good when the options are butterflies, beautiful to watch. But, on occasion, those pretty wings turn into a cage (or worse, hail or stinging rain) and we become trapped, frozen,   That’s the agony. That’s the pain of indecision.

If you have ended up there simply because you are afraid you’ll lose all the other ideas if you choose one, there’s good news. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The writer is never short of ideas. They come from everywhere. They land like fairy dust on the pillow, the breakfast table, the conference room. All we have to do is sweep them up. Only the new writers are worried about lack of ideas or losing those they have captured. More ideas will come to us than any of us could write in a lifetime. Grasping this truth leaves us free to pursue one idea, knowing dozens are lining up for our attention later.

If you ended up there due to fear (fear of producing, fear of judgment, fear of choosing), there’s also good news. Either your drive to write will overcome fear long enough for you to get started (and begin negotiations with that fear) or that fear will distract you from writing all together. Either way, you’ll move beyond this point.

The true agony, for me, comes when I’ve developed a couple of ideas enough to see where they are headed and what their potential is. I like them all, the characters are active, the plots creep into my dreams. I would count it a great success if I only had one, or a great one and a good one. The choice is easier then, of course. Once in a while I have even managed to combine two of them into a stronger story. My painful indecision comes when two or three are actively campaigning for my attention.

I think it’s helpful for writers to have a clear idea of their goals at moments like this. If you plan to write only historical romance, or to focus on science fiction, it’s simpler to eliminate all the good ideas that don’t fit. If you are publishing your work, continuing your series probably carries more weight than writing a stand-alone novel. Knowing your goals gives you something by which to judge each idea and concept.

To make the process easier, I’ve developed a list of questions to answer when I am stuck in the agony of choice. I’ll draw columns for each idea and use the questions as rows. My goal is to find out which story has the most meaning for me personally, (which is usually directly correlated to how much it make me uncomfortable), and which seems to have the most “juice.” Some ideas look fantastic when first developed, but not all of them have the juice to carry a full novel.

Every writer develops their own list of questions. I’m sharing a few of mine in case you need a starting point.

  • Which of these stories am I dreaming about?
  • Which of these stories pops into my head most often?
  • Which of these stories feel like they can wait?
  • Which of these stories brings emotions to the surface?
  • Which of these main characters is most/least like me?
  • What is the Truth for each of these stories/characters?
  • Which of these stories or characters makes me most uncomfortable?
  • Which character makes the most profound change in their arc?

You get the idea. I use about 16 questions on average. Generally speaking, it’s worked for me to go through a process like this. What’s most telling (and kind of maddening, in a good way) is when I write a lot about one idea and feel it’s the best option only to throw it all out the window and run after the other idea full speed. I don’t think I’d have found the hidden commitment for it if I hadn’t put it through the process.

Squirrel Syndrome gets us all at one time or another. The Agony of Choice will, too. In both cases, however, we can take control.

How have you resolved your Agony of Choice? If prone to Squirrel Syndrome, how often do you let it pull you off course?



T – Truth

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.
Tim O’Brien

Humans are born with this amazing ability to replay scenes in our minds, to edit them, recast them, and alter actual events on our mental stage. It’s psychological benefits an be enormous (or destructive depending on the person).

Fiction is a bit like that. We can tell deep truths in stories that we can barely verbalize in the real world. We put our characters through emotional trials that are universal to humanity, allowing the readers to identify and invest in those characters from the front cover to the back. We can rewrite our own experiences and give our characters different reactions and results. That is just one way writing can be cathartic.

There is so much we say, both knowingly and unintentionally, in our work that is truth. What do you think of the quote? What does it bring to mind for you?

F – Fantasy and Fiction

Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.
Lloyd Alexander

Stories are fantasy, but in this fantasy we are free to explore life, truths, and our own experiences. We can try on different roles, live vicariously in different eras, and struggle with different villains.

Stories are so important to us that we set them down in books, then in plays, movies, and television. From early childhood we were enraptured with them and made up our own in play.

I don’t know if it’s metaphor or vicariously living with the protagonist or the natural rise and fall in tension. I’m not sure if it’s anticipation, the wonder of “what’s next,” or the need to tell our own stories  until we’ve fully accepted them.

Stories teach, warn, comfort, thrill, amuse, and challenge. Fables, urban legends, adventure—stories both entertain us and resonate in us. I recognize it. I know it. I can’t say I understand it. From the first gathering of tribes, there have been stories. How many story lovers have written a thesis or dissertation on the humanity of stories?  Not enough, I think.

Stories communicate ideas, beliefs, the state of society in all its horror and splendor. I can’t imagine a life without stories, can you? We tell them at work, with friends, to ourselves.  We relate the events of our lives with a beginning, middle, and end.

To listen to and tell stories is to be human.

Why do you think humans developed stories? What is it about stories that binds us?

B – Books

So many books, so little time.

Frank Zappa

I’ve spent the past twelve months buried in non-fiction . . . text books, books on drilled down topics, books that teach, share, question.  I miss the release and “escape” of fiction. The clock has become my enemy as it doesn’t allow for much personal reading.

I love non-fiction. I’m learning, stretching, and growing. But it’s a different growing and learning than what comes from fiction. If nothing else, I’ve discovered I need a balance between learning/research and losing myself in worlds between book covers.

I’m reaching a milestone birthday this year and Frank Zappa’s quote is really hitting home. There are so many books I have yet to read and the clock is less of a friend going forward.

Crime Scenes for Writers: DNA and Biologics

Here we are at the last post in the series. Time flies, right?

Most of us are familiar with DNA, the individual blueprint for each of us. DNA testing has come so incredibly far in the last twenty years, almost to the point that we expect DNA to answer most if not all of our questions. That makes CAN an interesting place for writers to stymie the investigator (and the reader).

DNA is a powerful tool, yes, but not without exception in the field of criminal investigation. Consider the following scenario:

The Case of Sally Simms

Sally lives alone in her apartment. In the last three days, she’s had new appliances installed, new cable run for the internet, her boyfriend has visited several times, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend were over for dinner, and she had a coworker over for coffee.

Sally is found dead on the floor of her hallway. The science teams go through her apartment collecting everything they can find and Sally goes off to the autopsy table. The police begin with the list of possible suspects: Sally’s boyfriend, sister, sister’s boyfriend, the appliance installer, the cable installer, and the coworker.

DNA is everywhere. Each person in the apartment left their DNA behind. If Sally’s cause of death was a blow to the head, DNA is not helpful unless the object is found and DNA is recovered from parts of the object only the killer would have touched. Your police detective must turn to other investigative means.

During autopsy, should DNA from seminal fluid be found to match both the boyfriend and the sister’s boyfriend, Sally’s sister is going to want an explanation, but it doesn’t make either of them the killer, especially as Sally was dressed and in the hallway. Scrapings from under Sally’s fingernails might yield DNA, but if the suspect shows a scratch healed beyond the time frame of her murder, it might just mean Sally didn’t scrub her hands or under her nails.

Plausible DNA

Now, in most cases, DNA is eliminated because it has a plausible reason for being where it is. If other lines of investigation develop a suspect, DNA might support it, but not be conclusive. I don’t know about you, but I get a perverse kick out of writing crime stories in which DNA is not a major part of evidence, just because I can and I like the unexpected.

DNA is absolutely helpful in the case of serial crimes such as rape and murder, since unknown DNA from crime scenes is entered into and checked against CODIS, the Combined DNA Index. Once a suspect’s DNA is available for match, he or she could be connected to a series of crimes.

DNA can be collected from almost any surface and from almost any body fluid. Hair won’t give DNA but the hair root (if torn out) can. Naturally shed skin won’t give you much, but scrape your arm across an abrasive surface and it’s possible.  And when stranger DNA is present from a person who has no explanation for being at the location, good chances are you have your criminal.


But there’s more. In recent years, we’ve made serious headway into biologics which, in addition to DNA and fingerprints, also includes palm prints, palm vein patterns, facial recognition, ear recognition (mostly in Europe still), Iris patterns, retina recognition, hand geometry, and odor or scent.

What was partially developed for security has become a database of biometric information. The Department of Homeland Security has IDENT, which includes biometric and associated biographic information. The Department of Defense has ABIS, the Automated Biometric Information System. CODIS, which also includes the National DNA Index, will, I suspect, branch into biometrics if it hasn’t already.

We already use biometrics to solve a crime such as Sally’s. Even if the killer wore gloves, should a lamp base or makeshift weapon turn up in good condition, it would be possible to match the size and shape of the hand to the person who wielded it. If her building has solid security camera coverage, facial recognition might identify or confirm a suspect entering and leaving the building near the time of the murder.

The Future is (Mostly) Now

The possibilities are as numerous as the writer’s imagined scenarios.  Consider shifting the story ten years into the future, and the writer could have a lot of fun with solving Sally’s murder.

I hope this series has been helpful. I’ve been working on a series titled Body of Evidence, but I’m not certain you would be interested in reading about the evidence a body can yield after death. Please comment below if you’d like me to post the Body of Evidence series. Though it’s not written in graphic language, some of the subject matter may prove uncomfortable for some readers.

Has anything in this series changed the way you look at criminal investigation from a storyteller’s point of view?

Other posts in this series:

Crime Scenes for Writers: Introduction

Crime Scenes for Writers: Reading the Scene

Crime Scenes for Writers: Fingerprints

Crime Scenes for Writers: Blood Evidence

Crime Scenes for Writers: Ballistics

Crime Scenes for Writers: Trace

Crime Scenes for Writers: DNA and  Biologics