The Joy of Making Stuff Up

by James Scott Bell

“Once upon a time,” I told my two oldest grandboys, “there were two baby monsters. One was green and one was blue. They lived in a cave with their mom and dad…”

I had no idea what I would say next (Papa was pantsing and the pressure was on). Their eyes were riveted on me, with that expression children get when they are not really looking at you but at the pictures forming in their imaginations. There is nothing so precious as that look, and it was my task to keep it there.

Trouble being the key to plot, I got those baby monsters out of the cave and lost in the city (notice the urban landscape. I have too much noir in my bones to go bucolic). The trouble kept increasing—a truck almost hit them! A robber almost shot them! A building fell down around them!—until, finally, a stout-hearted policeman helped them get back home.

The boys were enraptured to the end. Then came my reward: “Tell us another story, Papa.”

Ah, the pure joy of making stuff up.

We’ve had several discussions over the years here at TKZ about why we write. Is it for love or money or a combo of both? (See, e.g., Debbie’s post on this topic and the comments thereto). Today I’d like to focus on another reason: pure, unadulterated joy.

Those of us who’ve labored inside the walls of the Forbidden City, where deadlines loom like nimbus clouds, know it’s not always fun and games. The beast of profit must be fed and the wolf of canceled contracts howls outside the gates.

For indies, there is business to attend to, with its expansive list of non-writing tasks. The demand to be prolific can dilute the simple joy of making stuff up.

Wherever you are in your writing, it’s crucial to find ways to nurture that joy. Getting into “the zone” when we work on our WIP is one way, though it’s hard to systematize. Some days the writing pours out of you; other days it’s like slogging through the La Brea Tar Pits in snowshoes. When I’m in the pits I find that doing some character work is the ticket back into “flow.” I’ll stop and do some thinking about one or two of the characters, and it doesn’t matter who they are—main, secondary, or a new one I make up. A bit more backstory, a secret held, a relationship hitherto unnoticed—in a little while I’m excited to dive back in.

That’s for my main work, full-length fiction. But I also take time for flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, and (as Steve mentioned yesterday) novellas. These I do these purely for fun. I don’t think about markets or editors or critics. It’s just me and my writing and new story worlds.

The nice thing is that even if a shorter work stalls out (it rarely does, for there is almost always a way to make things work) the exercise itself is good for my craft as a whole. It keeps me sharp and in shape. I write short fiction the way Rocky Marciano used the heavy bag. No one was ever in better shape than Marciano, which is why he was the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating here:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. — Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)

I certainly had a good time writing a series of six novelettes about a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s. These were originally written for my Patreon group, but the response was so positive I decided to put them all together in a collection which, coincidentally (how could I have known?) releases today!

TROUBLE IS MY BEAT is out now at the deal price of $2.99 (it goes up to $4.99 at the end of the week). For readers outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B09V1RLXDM

Which brings up the joy of sharing your work. You can do that now in many ways. And if you’ve had fun in the writing, there’s a good chance you’ll have the fun of making new readers. You may even get a message along the lines of, “I just discovered your books! I love them! Keep writing, please!”

Why, that’s almost as good as, “Tell us another story, Papa.”

And that’s how I see the joy of making stuff up. How about you? Do you experience this often yourself? Does it come and go? How do you get it back when it takes a powder?


33 thoughts on “The Joy of Making Stuff Up

  1. Do you often experience the joy of making stuff up?

    Of course. Laughter is music for the soul. Making people laugh is always a great pleasure. But I’ll settle for making them cry; I do write sad stories, too. When editing or searching for some phrase in one of my stories, I frequently get carried along in the prose and forget why I’m there. My works tend towards poetic forms: alliterative, with figures of speech sprinkled in, or a little irony.

    Does it come and go?

    Not much. I did a Christmas newsletter for 40 years. Early on, I’d worry every year whether I could write something funny. I always did. Eventually, when I sat down to write, I was confident that the humor was there if I just started writing. I might discard a lot, but the creative engine, the Guardienne, the creative Unconscious, my genie would always come up with something good, like clockwork.

    How do you get it back when it takes a powder?

    Sit and write. It may take a few minutes, but the words will flow. The Guardienne operates independently of consciousness and mood.

    [T]here is almost always a way to make things work

    Strike the “almost.” As author, you (and your Guardienne) are the most powerful being in the universe you’ve created in your mind and on paper. There is always a way. You may have to back up a little to enable the way out, but you can make it work.

  2. The joy of writing? This morning I woke up from a dream: I found an old hardcover book outside. As I took it into the house, I heard a rattling inside the book. The pages had been cut out to form a box. Inside was the treasure of a small bouncy ball.

    The cats’ toy. Message received!

  3. Love that moment with your grandsons, Jim. You’re lucky. My eldest granddaughter sat me down all serious and said, “Nanna, you have to stop killing people. It’s not nice.” Apparently, her maternal grandmother shared that little tidbit with her without adding “fiction” to the story. My granddaughter was five at the time. One of these days I’ll write each grandchild a story of their own.

  4. It is a joy to make stuff up–in fact, it’s hard to turn off the ‘What if?” faucet. Call it solving a puzzle, trying to figure out life’s problems fictionally–whatever it is makes it joyful to write (most of the time).

    Just like life, writing can become tiresome in spurts. You can get stuck while puzzling out complex plot points and it feels the same as when you watch those videos of football players pushing hard against that thingamajig (don’t know what you call it) during practice as it resists them.

    But if I get stuck and lose that joy I can always go back to something you’ve mentioned, a character monologue and sometimes tackling a bit of a research puzzle helps get things going again. The good news is, we keep coming back to the page. 😎

    • BK, love the “What if?” faucet. Yes! So many What ifs present themselves that it’s a jolt of joy just to experience them. Who would want to turn that faucet off? We use it to make a splash!

  5. Thanks for writing this post, Jim. Wonderful! The joy of making stuff up is the addiction that keeps me writing fiction. And part of the motivation is the plan for the grandchildren to become interested in the stories, especially when they learn they are part of the story.

    My books were planned to be a series that await my grandchildren when they reach Jr. Hi and High School. (my oldest is a third grader). I was surprised and delighted when I asked my second-grade granddaughter what she was reading, and she answered, “Your books.” Wow, that made my day.

    The best way I’ve found to maintain the joy of making stuff up, is the standard plan of maintaining a routine of comfortable chair, light laptop, coffee on the mug warmer, and writing in the morning before the cares of this world intrude on the joy of creative play.

    I hope you find time to write (and publish) some stories for your grandchildren.

    Leave a legacy!

    • Ah yes, Steve, the morning ritual. I’ve always loved getting up before everyone else, while it’s still dark, getting that first brew, and knocking out a Nifty 250.

      Now, how did I get along all these years without a mug warmer? Writing a letter to Santa today…

  6. Congratulations on Trouble Is My Business being out in the world! My pre-order for Kindle arrived late last night. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    This is another very timely post, Jim. Just yesterday while I was driving back from a friend’s, I was thinking about kindling and sustaining joy in my writing process. At the end of February, I realized my creative self-doubt (what Pressfield calls “resistance”) had been hitting me pretty hard, and I took steps to get past it, starting with reading some craft. books, attending a great in-person writer’s retreat (Rainforest, at Lake Quinault in the Olympic rainforest in Washington State), and then, I discovered a book called “Breakthrough,” by J. Dharma Kelleher, which is full of tips and advice on dealing with this, and with recovering the joy in our writing and trusting our process.

    She uses affirmations, meditation, gratitude list, morning pages from The Artist’s Way, free writing, and visualization exercises. Many of the techniques which you’ve also suggested.

    It’s helping, and I’m recovering the joy of making things up. I remembering the fun of opening the toy chest of my imagination. It’s been challenging, since I’ve been revising my first mystery, that library cozy, for months now. I’ve reminded myself that I didn’t learn how to write a fantasy novel in a month, it took years, so learning to write a mystery novel will take a little while.

    But, it’s coming together, and A Shush Before Dying is now up for pre-order:

    Rereading that book description reminds me of the fun and games of the premise. I use another one of your techniques, close my eyes and imagine this playing out as a movie, one that also has touch, taste and smell and I get jazzed to improve the story.

    Thanks for another insightful post, one that really hit home.

  7. Love this, Jim.

    I have a regret from my past mommying days. For a time, when I was a single mom of three children in grade school, I’d spin a tale at dinner time. I started a story of a cat who lived in a feline kingdom where all cats drug their tails in the dirt and muck. This one cat refused to drag his tail. He held it up proudly as he walked through the streets. He was roundly criticized, but he didn’t pay attention to any of them.

    Then, there came a day when a boy kitten walked up to him, stood silently in front of him, and slowly raised his tail. Smiling (yes, cats smile), he walked away, pointing his tail at the sky.

    I told the story in small segments, each dinner time for several months.

    The regret? Didn’t write it down, and now I can’t remember the rest of the story.

    But, I do remember my children begging me for just a little more each evening. Vivid “show” of a page-turner. 🙂

    Happy Sunday to you.

  8. I love the story of the two baby monsters. Like your grandchildren, I was imagining their adventures as I read.

    This writing thing certainly is a joy for me. Even the bad days are good. When I get that feeling of “no inspiration, no need to sit down and write,” I do what you and others here at TKZ taught me — I sit down and write. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes not so good, but there’s reward in the effort. And finding one right word is better than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    Thanks for reminding us, and all the best with “Trouble Is My Beat.” I have my copy.

  9. Thanks for the mention, Jim!

    “…that expression children get when they are not really looking at you but at the pictures forming in their imaginations. There is nothing so precious as that look, and it was my task to keep it there.”

    Can’t think of any better reason to tell stories than that.

    By coincidence, my post for this coming Tuesday deals with what I learned to do during down times.

  10. Creating and writing have always been fun for me. The business part sucked the life out of me until I stopped wanting to share with the general public and have concentrated on the fun stuff just for my own amusement. I’m perfectly fine with that.

    I spent many hours at my mom’s beach house with my sister’s two kids. It wasn’t until much, much later that they realized that most adults can’t create a customized bed time story to their parameters, then perform it with a monkey puppet and different voices.

  11. The best part of this is that Meeker’s book is available as a free download courtesy of Google, the evil empire. A brief scan tells me that this is a theory/craft resource worth having.

    Even if I’m not writing I’m thinking about what’s going on with the characters in my most recent WIP. Every time I start something and crash I learn just a smidge more and the next one gets a little better. Or more believable.

  12. Terrific blog, Grandpa Jim. Some of my fondest memories are of my grandfather telling me stories. Yes, I still experience the joy of writing. There are some mornings when I can’t wait to get to my computer. Do I lose that joy? Yes. But it returns, especially when I uncover some new research that I can’t wait to share with my readers.

  13. Great post. That pesky first draft can make me lose my writing joy…so I just keep telling myself, you can’t edit what you haven’t written…
    The joy is there most mornings, so on the mornings it isn’t I remind myself that the only way to get it back is to sit down and start writing. It’s the only way the story gets done. I’m excited about Trouble Is My Beat!

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