How I Get Ideas

I often use terms like “brainstorm” when talking about the writing process. Putting words to computer screen only happens if there’s a crapload of activity swarming around in your brain. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, there needs to be something going on up there before you open a text document. Thinking about your future best-seller is just as important as the physical act of writing it.

So how does an aspiring writer* get the proverbial juices flowing? Where do great ideas come from? (*IMO, the phrase “aspiring writer” is a misnomer. If you create a story, you’re a writer. People should say “aspiring author” in reference to someone who wishes to be published.)

In my limited experience, there are two parts to this answer.

Inspiration

Inspiration can be a good angel or a bad angel. It’s a good angel when you’re really stuck and have no clue what the hell to write. It’s a bad angel when you’re midway through a novel and a shiny new story idea distracts you from a project you’ve been working on for months. We’ll address the positive aspects of inspiration here.

You can harvest ideas from literally anywhere, and I do mean literally. The trick is opening your mind to them. While you’re out in the world, working at your day job, spending time with friends or family, listen to what’s going on around you. The same applies when you read a book or watch TV. My own novel-in-progress combines elements of shows I’ve loved over the years. (Mostly Disney Channel’s So Weird, a show with a permanent place in my heart. There’s also some of the dynamic from  ABC’s Castle, and the premise will probably make people think of X-Files.)

So when you’re not writing, grab on to anything interesting and expand on it in your thoughts. Add a plot line, characters, settings, themes. I picture the process as a Rubik’s Cube, where you have to move all the pieces around until they finally click together. When a scene takes shape (any scene, not necessarily the first one) you’re off and running.

Playing Twenty-Or-More Questions (Or, How to Drag Yourself Out of Writer’s Bock)

This is a technique I use when my surroundings don’t feel particularly inspiring. I’m the type to ask myself the tough questions when things aren’t going right, so I apply this to my writing. It’s also a great way to pull a story idea from thin air.

For starters I’ll ask myself these types of questions:

What do I want to write about? (Can mean anything – person, place, theme.)

What story line would fit that topic?

Which characters would best demonstrate what I want to say?

Am I in the mood to write something light or dark in tone?

Which genre appeals to me right now?

Answering those questions always gets the ball rolling. When I inevitably hit a wall after the first few chapters, the questions become a little more difficult.

Why am I stuck?

If I don’t want to write the next scene, why is that? 

What can I change?

Does this story suck and I haven’t realized it yet? (Ignore that one.)

Where do I want the story to go?

Keep playing the game until something breaks loose. The only way to defeat “writer’s block” is to think long and hard about why you’re not writing.

When All the Simplistic Writing Advice Makes Sense

I hate those catchphrases for writers. You know the ones I’m talking about – “write every day,” “show don’t tell,” etc. No one ever explains how to apply them. What if they don’t work for me? Am I a bad person if I can’t write every day? Which part of the story is “showing,” and which is “telling”?

Over time these pieces of advice make more and more sense. I’ve experienced “eureka!” moments, when a nugget of wisdom finally clicks into place. The onset of NaNoWriMo got me thinking about my writing practice and how I’ve come to understand these common phrases. (I’m not doing it this year but support those who are.) Hopefully my interpretations save you years of frustration.

“Write Every Day”

Writing every day is not realistic for most people. They have jobs and social lives (so I’m told), or they just don’t feel up to putting words on the page that day. Here’s a secret:

It’s fine. You’re not a bad person.

I believe this advice refers to keeping up a regular writing practice. You’re only a bad person if it’s been six months and you haven’t even opened a text document. It’s happened to me before. After a week or even two, I’ll feel antsy about neglecting my writing. Either I need to fix my Work-In-Progress, start a new one, or pick out a book to read. Speaking of which…

“Read”

I talked about this in another post, so I’ll just tack on an addition. Read bad books along with good ones. I don’t mean you should seek out a book and hope it’s bad. All I’m saying is, if you start a book and roll your eyes at the writing style, don’t put it down right away. Ask yourself why you’re rolling your eyes. Why does this story turn you off? Is it the passive voice, the slow plot? Are the characters one-dimensional? I’ve read a lot of bad books this summer and have no regrets about sticking with them. Noticing writing “don’ts” in someone else’s novel teaches me what to avoid in my own. This leads me to…

“Show, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always despised this “advice” in particular. What the hell does it mean? For the love of God, what’s “show” and what’s “tell”? Aren’t you “telling” the reader the whole freaking story? Can’t a character’s stream of consciousness “show” the readers more of their personality?

Reading bad books helped me see the light. “Telling” instead of “showing” doesn’t ruin the book completely, but the story becomes a chore to slog through. Make sure the character’s internal reactions add to the reader’s understanding of recent actions, and that’s it. I’m also not a fan of the main character making judgments like “he’s so sweet” or “he annoyed me.” It’s okay once or twice, but you need actions to back up the character’s assessments. The last book I read drove me up a wall by repeating the same exact thought every other paragraph.

It makes me think of TV shows. Doesn’t it bug you when the writers say one thing in dialogue and show another through a character’s actions?

Fix this by adding consequences or new actions that support/replace what you wanted to “tell.” I’ve always been a character-and-dialogue person myself so I understand how difficult it can be to build up a plot line.

“Use Action Verbs/Active Voice”

I confess to this crime too. Sometimes you can’t avoid “was” or “had” no matter how you rework a sentence. Sometimes a sentence makes more sense when you use passive verbs. I never liked this advice either, because using active voice all the time feels daunting when you’re not used to it.

I’ve accepted this as a bad habit we all need to break. Too many instances of “was” or “had” grates on the nerves, there’s no way around it.

“Write What You Know”

This one confused me for the longest time. “So I’m only supposed to write about experiences I’ve had? I’m not that interesting!” Now I get it. The expression refers to writing about topics that appeal to you on a personal level. Don’t choose your novel idea based on a trend. If you can’t do what your characters do in your story, at least you’ll have enough interest to research the hell out of it.

Also, whenever possible, base your characters’ actions/choices on what you’ve done or seen others do. Characters should be relatable whether they’re dealing with school drama or using their magical powers to save the world.

Okay, all that’s out of my system. I feel better now.

A Pantser Who Plans

“Pantser” and “Planner” are terms I picked up from then NaNoWriMo community. While I gave up on ever writing 50K words in a month (I prefer my own pace because forcing a story never works for me), I still support those who take on the challenge and adopt some of their philosophies. A Pantser is someone who writes by the seat of one’s pants, meaning without an outline to guide them, while a Planner…well, plans. Neither label is better than the other  – in my opinion – and the choice completely depends on the individual.

Until recently I was a Pantser. Whenever I got inspiration for a new idea, I’d be so excited about it and start the first chapter right away. Then I would hit a wall by the second chapter. At most I made up scenes as I went. This alone made me abandon many stories because I never bothered to chip away at said wall. I’d lose interest in the idea, conclude it wasn’t as great as I thought it was, and move on to the next Great Idea. I never wanted to stop and re-examine the characters, plot or potential themes. My inspiration moved on so I went right along with it.

Inspiration is a tricky devil. It makes mediocre ideas THE BEST THING EVER and distracts me from investing in my current work. Before the story had any depth, I’d get distracted by the shiny new idea waiting to be developed. Without an outline or any idea of how the middle will flow into the conclusion, I had difficulty committing to the story. Why bother when a dozen other ideas sound much better than the one right in front of me?

My novella series “Define Reality” turned me into a Planner. It originally started as a television script, so for once I already had every single plot point mapped out. This made a huge difference when I finally wrote the novella version. I could focus on characters and theme instead of worrying about where the hell I was going with all this. Oh sure, I still had to figure out a bunch of stuff along the way, but the basics were there. I also felt comfortable adding things knowing how they fit into the overall picture. Even though I didn’t write the novella in a thirty days, I finished in less than six months and was happy with the results.

I think I will always “pants” a little bit. There will be times when I’ll go totally off-outline and add in scenes I concoct during the writing process. Going forward though, I want to put more effort into outlining the whole story. If nothing else, it’s a relief to know I won’t end up in the Middle of Nowhere without map.

Writing Tips from an Unpublished Writer

Title says it all. If it helps, I started writing almost twenty years ago.

Yeah, that doesn’t help.

We won’t talk about the numerous commitment and confidence issues preventing me from querying agents. Instead, I’d like to mention something else: I give good advice. This talent doesn’t usually work on my own life, but I’ve helped countless others over the years. I’m like those psychics who can’t predict lottery numbers. If I wanted to take out more student loans, or listen to people talk about their problems all day long, I could easily be a therapist. I’d rather be an unpublished writer.

Anyway, you clicked on this post for the potentially-helpful advice that you might remember five minutes from now. F-Y-I, this is all from trial and error. If I went to college for writing or joined groups, maybe I would have learned this sooner or drawn different conclusions. All I know is that they’ve helped me…not get published. You’ve been warned.

  1. Write. I know, every advice article tells you this, but it’s for a reason. You won’t get better unless you write a whole lot of crap first. Thousands and thousands of words of pure, glorious crap. Oh sure, some of it might be grammatically correct, and your mom-teacher-friend-random person online might think you’re a natural. I’ve been there. Keep going. There is no conclusion to this point because the process doesn’t end. Your writing style has a life of its own. The way you write will develop five, ten, fifteen years from now. It’s an incremental change that results from individual decisions. You’ll get what I mean the first time you notice sentence length, or how often you use adverbs.
  2. Read. It took me a long time to get this. Logically you’d think writing and reading are inseparable, but sometimes, they drift apart. You get so wrapped up in producing that you forget how important it is to consume. Picking up a paperback, losing yourself in the story for hours, not stopping until the next chapter break…all of it reminds you why you write. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what you read. Read an interesting book/article/comic/etc., and you’ll want to write.
  3. Have a reason. This is another one that eluded me for years. A key element missing from my writing was emotion, and I could never figure out why. Why did all my original stories fall flat? Why was it so much easier to write fanfiction? I  couldn’t tell you my exact light-bulb moment, but in the last few years it finally clicked. The way I created stories needed adjustment. Characters and plot are important, but I should spend an equal amount of time on the message, the purpose. Why do I want to write this story? What do I want to tell readers? A story doesn’t have to be preachy, but it should have a theme. It will help when you lose interest in the middle and don’t know where to go next. This brings up my next point…
  4. Write however you want. I prefer to start at the beginning, but you don’t have to. Are there scenes you can’t wait to write? Write them first. For one novel (the only draft I actually finished), I skipped ahead to a collection of scenes between two of the main characters, which ended up in the middle of the story. That reminds me…
  5. Not everything will be usable. I’ve abandoned countless stories, written dozens of pages no one else will ever read. It’s okay. Sometimes you need to write scenes to get them out of your system.
  6. Shake up your routine. If you haven’t worked on your Super Important Manuscript in weeks, work on something else for a while. The novel that’s going to make you famous will be there when you’re ready for it. Sometimes, the new project you start becomes Super Important too. On the other hand…
  7. Don’t give in to “Writer’s Block.” Raise your right hand and say it with me: “Writer’s Block is an excuse. I could write if I really, really wanted to.” If it’s a schedule thing, make time. Wake up earlier or go to bed later. If it’s a story thing, ask yourself why. Are you dreading the next scene? Write another one (see Tip #4). Is the next scene necessary? Should you write it from a different POV? Turn the story around in your mind until something works. If you don’t have a story, then…
  8. Brainstorm. This is different for everyone, but it works best for me when I branch off from a topic (see Tip #3). Other pieces fall into place after that. What plot would best relate to this topic? What characters would this plot have? Eventually you zoom in on a main character.