Guest Post: Joshua Unruh – Tiny Acorns

Author Joshua Unruh
David asked me one of those hard writer questions that you hear and think will be easy to answer. But then, once you actually sit down to write the answer, you realize it might as well be “where do your ideas come from?” as far as complicatedness. He had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to ask me how I knew when my story ideas were ready to become actual stories.

I think it might be a bit gauche to just copy and paste I HAVE NO CLUE over and over when I promised an actual blog post. So here goes.

Just like every other writer, I have a comp notebook. Now, they might not have an actual comp notebook, but that’s just because they’re buck-toothed hillbillies who don’t know what’s good. Regardless, it’s the repository of all rough ideas. Snippets of dialogue, rough plot hooks, basic character concepts, doodles, unfinished poetry, or whatever takes your fancy. The notebook holds the kinda junk that wakes you up at 2am so you can scribble down what you’re sure is genius, only to find even you barely know what the heck you were thinking when you jotted it down.

For me, those are the story seeds. Sometimes it really is gibberish from the middle of the night, but sometimes it’s whole plots in bullet points. However it starts, it doesn’t usually take up a whole page. Like I said, sometimes it’s one line. But I leave that idea, however thin and flimsy it may be, on its own there.

Now and then, I flip through the notebook and reread the ideas and see if any of the other stuff floating around my head that’s too amorphous to even be in the notebook yet sticks to the page. If it does, I scribble it down wherever it’ll fit and then connect it to the rest of the stuff on the page with underlines, different colored ink, or enough squiggly lines to confuse even Jeffy from Family Circus.

When I have a page or two of that mess, it’s probably time to go to the Pre-Writing Package bequeathed unto me by Aaron Pogue of the titular blog and the writing advice repository Unstressed Syllables. The ideas have gathered enough momentum that I need to let them keep rolling and see if they become an actual story. The PWP helps me connect the dots, flesh out characters, make sure there’s an actual Story Question I’m answering, that kind of thing. If I can make that leap, then it’s ready to graduate to a story.

As you can imagine, this is a far from perfect process. That said, I’ve only had it explode in my face one time. I wanted to knock out the first draft of a sci-fi neo-Noir story called Copper Lincoln, Robot Detective in The Big Sleep Mode. I had three or four pages of notes, so I knew it was time for the PWP. I filled that out in painful graphic detail. Courtney Cantrell, my Acquisitions Editor, and Aaron Pogue, my publisher, looked at it. They both declared it detailed, well thought out, and ready to be written. I had a long car trip and I attacked it with gusto.

I wrote the first act and it was…not very good. I mean, all the pieces were there, obviously, it had been through the process. But it was too short, too obvious, there was no subtlety. I had great sheet music but it had left me with no funk. So I did the only thing I could do. I rewrote it.

I didn’t scrap it, though! I didn’t start over from scratch because there was gold in what I’d written. I went back to the PWP, I figured out that all I had to do was tweak some character relationships and, in one case, change the relationship wholesale. It left me with something much more interesting, much longer, and, best of all, much more Noir.

So the process failed me. But I guess it hadn’t failed me all that hard. Not really. Oh, I didn’t finish the first draft on schedule (or at all, yet). And it was difficult to move bits around, write new connective tissue, and then stitch the existing good stuff I’d written into a new whole. And I’m positive you can still see the stitches and scars. But the new monster runs rings around the villagers where the old one lumbered. Instead of frustrated, I’m energized to finish it. In fact, I should really get back to work on that thing…

Here’s the thing about my process: It’s totally mine. I don’t actually expect it to work for anybody else EVER. There’s a ridiculous amount of Zen mixed into my notebook pages so that, in some way I can’t entirely explain, the entire story is represented in the first pen stroke in the notebook. Sorta like how every cell in my body holds the DNA that makes me, me. That sounds like hippy crap, and I know it, but there also isn’t anything I can do about it.

Anybody else’s process look like this? If not, tell me what yours looks like.


Visit Joshua’s official website: JoshuaUnruh.com

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About the author

Joshua Unruh is a stay-at-home dad and professional author who refuses to think of either as being unemployed. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, his son, his father-in-law, two dogs, and absolutely no peace. Still, he manages to write a little bit. He strives to make everything he writes clever, interesting, or funny. Like Meatloaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.

Though he has been a professional liar in the fields of advertising, sales, and private investigations, it is only recently that Joshua has turned his love of fiction into a writing career. Joshua is a lover of genre fiction, especially superhero comics and hardboiled detectives, and this comes through in his genre-bending style. Weird Westerns, nihilistic Norse-style fantasies, YA espionage stories, and hardboiled Noir tales with shades of fantasy or science fiction are just a few examples of the twisting and warped hallways of his imagination.


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