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.

Life Is Short – I’m Reading Whatever I Want

Whenever the subject of literature comes up, you’d think I’d be the first one to say how I love Jane Austen or Mark Twain or any number of authors we’re forced to read in high school. Writers are supposed to love the classics, right? They’re the best of all time, the epitome of “good writing.” I should have a long list of classics that changed my life, which I often rattle off in order of influence.

Here’s the thing – I don’t. I love reading though. From the beginning I devoured any book I got my hands on and could spend hours in a bookstore. This is also true now. What I didn’t love was being forced to read classic literature in school. My friend from high school and I still joke about how we both fell asleep reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Sure, I liked “Catcher in the Rye” and “The Great Gatsby,” but I wouldn’t call them my favorites of all time.

What do I read? Anything else. I love genre fiction, always have. Give me a good mystery, supernatural or even a romance novel any day. My Kindle app has a growing collection of Nora Roberts trilogies (mostly her paranormal romances). Sometimes I don’t get to read as much as I’d like, but I always have one or multiple “currently reading” novels. Lately I surf Kindle for self-published ebooks or read works uploaded onto social media websites. To me it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they don’t fall asleep while reading it.

(Personally speaking, it’s ironic because with music the opposite applies – I prefer The Rolling Stones, Motown, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel. This phenomenon only happens with classic literature over thirty years old.)

Maybe I’d seek out more classics if I came across one I liked just as much as a contemporary novel, but it hasn’t happened yet. Now, that doesn’t mean classics don’t have value. They do because they influenced the authors who are on my Kindle app. They shaped the way we tell stories in the present day.

Unfortunately, I just can’t bring myself to read them.

I do hope I’ll come across a classic I absolutely love and finally get it. Once in a while I feel guilty about all this, but time is precious and I won’t force myself to read a book solely because librarians think I should. I’ll still write what I want and hopefully, some day, people will read my stories because they love genre fiction too.