7 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Up With Ideas

Traditionally, I’ve always entered the brainstorm stage with equal parts dread and thrill: thrill because the slate is clean, the world is wide, I can write anything; dread because the page is blank, and so is my head, oh god, why did I choose writing?*

Between different drafts of projects this year, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out, trying on, mocking up and tearing down ideas. Emphasis on the tearing down part (There’s a reason that this

ideas 1

is a writer stereotype.).

Fortunately, somewhere between all the desperate searching and lists and freewrites and plotting and summaries and metaphorical and actual crumpling of pages, I’ve managed to learn a few things about brainstorming and developing ideas efficiently. Things like:

1. Don’t wait until you’ve finished writing Project A to begin looking for/developing ideas for Project B. In the three novels I’ve written to date, I’ve always worked very one-project-at-a-time. While I think that’s productive in terms of keeping your head in the right story, it’s also a bit like going cold turkey off exercise or coffee or your favorite TV show whenever you get to a stopping point: suddenly a major part of your routine is gone, and you’re left dizzy and wanting and yes, probably even a bit cranky. You’ll save the stress if you have the core of another project (say, the logline) ready to go before you set the current one down.

2. Keep track of what interests you. Anything in this category has the potential to bleed into the important question, What is a story I’d want to read?, and its faithful companion, the story I want to write. Create a collection, real or virtual, for this express purpose, and if you’re ever in need of a starting point, just open it and play with its contents.

3. From one certainty, the world (Look for ideas in likely places). I’ve talked previously about sparks, the thing entire stories unfold from. While I still believe that sparks cannot be made, I do think we can be smart about where we look for them (see #2). And if we’re willing to mine away in a likely place, working at it even when we can’t see that first edge that glitters, chances are we’ll strike something precious eventually.

4. Think big (picture). Zoom out. When developing ideas into stories, start with overarching elements like concept, plot, conflict. Your spark might be a smaller detail, but the big stuff is fundamental. A good test to see if your story is ready to write (indeed, objectively sound and interesting enough to be worth writing): can you write a compelling synopsis in 100-250 words? How about a logline?

5. Legos, and let go. Here is why I’m suddenly feeling like I’ve learned something in this game: In playing with the bigger pieces first (attaching items that intrigue me to different characters, situations, formats, etc., and experimenting/rearranging them like Legos), I feel I’ve become able to recognize early on ideas that don’t sing: aren’t compelling enough, remind me too much of another story, would work better in another genre, etc. And when I do, I can swiftly set them aside and try something else.

6. There is value in knowing what you DON’T want to write, too. Seriously. Just crossing items off the list of endless possibilities (“not fantasy”; “not romance-based”; “no suicide, no road trip, no manic pixie dream girl”) is grounding and steers you in the right direction (or at least, away from the wrong ones).

7. If you’re focusing on a specific category, do recon. Ideally, you’re well read in that category already. Whether you are or not, one quick way to learn about it and maybe even generate ideas is to make a trip to the bookstore or library and spend time reading jackets. Reading the premises of many different stories in your genre, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s been done before and what hasn’t, what compels you and what doesn’t, not to mention find potential comp titles and additions to your TBR! All of which feeds into your idea pool.

Other things you’ve learned about finding and developing ideas? Share away!

Finally,

*I could not help but notice that part of this sentence formed a haiku:

The page is blank and

so is my head, oh god, why

did I choose writing?

My Summer Reading Giveaway! — on tumblr.

summer reading giveaway banner june 16Hey, guys! Two things have happened recently:

  1. Tumblr’s become the social media I’m most active on, which lead to
  2. I discovered the Book Depository.

The Book Depository is a magical and wondrous place where you can buy books online and ship them to over 160 different countries— FOR FREE. Yes. FREE. Shipping. Worldwide. As such, it is the perfect vehicle for internet-based giveaways. Which leads me to the grand announcement…

In honor of discovering TBD, some writing milestones, and an upcoming birthday, I am hosting my very own book giveaway on tumblr! The prize is $20 (USD) of books from the Book Depository. Full rules and details here. You can enter until August 22!

Please note that for ease of operation, this giveaway is open to tumblr users only. But I hope to see some of you over there!

Hope your summers (and summer reads) are off to a great start!

Active Daydreaming: When do your thoughts fly?

So today I was working out– running and listening to music– with a new book idea in the back of my mind. At some point, I started thinking about that book. I started thinking about the main character and who she was and how she behaves and what’s in her past and these scenes, these tiny glimpses of her life just began to reveal themselves to me. I started seeing relationships between things, characters, picturing events. After a while I looked up and was stunned to see 30 minutes was nearly up. I had totally tuned out my music, though my body was still running in time with it. I had been in THE ZONE.

One of my biggest rules for idea development is to spend time in places you can hear yourself think. This invites the mind to wander, to slip into domino thought streams and envision and invent, but I must admit, getting into active daydream mode (where your ideas freely leap from one to the next for any real stretch of time) is something I find much harder to do on command than not. Near impossible to do before a word processor.

The reason I wanted to share today’s experience (other than sheerly marveling that wow, that actually happens sometimes) is that to ask other writers: Do you notice any pattern about when your mind seems to open up the most (e.g., when you do dishes, exercise, read, etc.)? When parts of the story come at you of their own volition? I once read that Stephen King walks for three hours every day, thinking about his books. Maybe there’s something to it.

Why writing a crappy first draft is important.

It may seem paradoxical of me to be writing this post from the depths of revision #832-B in my current project, but the fact I would quote such a number, even in hyperbole, should convey something in and of itself about the mutability of a story and how frivolous it is to try to get anything right the first time.

There are two major reasons it is useful, even necessary to write the most horrible first draft you can:

  1. The one you hear all the time: Because it’s the only way you’ll FINISH the darn thing! Creating an entire story and funneling it from your head onto paper is difficult enough without wanting it to glow in your first draft. I think many writers dive into a project with high energy, but then they lose steam in the tough spots because they want the prose to be just right, the plot point to be just right, the transition to be just right, and when it eventually, inevitably isn’t they get stuck and frustrated and jump ship. With the first draft, you just have to let loose. Hokey pokey, being bad is what it’s all about! Write with reckless abandon, worry about the fine stuff later. Who cares if it’s full of holes when you finish? That’s what revision is for!
  1. The one you hear less often, because many manuscripts never make it that far: The story will fluctuate with every revision. Sometimes in colossal ways. You will add one scene and cut another. Write a character in or out. Work things up, work things down, slash whole chapters, change the ending, adjust a huge plot point that has repercussions all throughout the book. Writing a crappy first draft is important because you need to get all the pieces on the board before you can step back and see the story objectively, in its entirety, and figure out how to adjust the parts to make the whole better.

What’s your first draft process like? Any tips for first-time novelists? Share in the comments below!

Write, Doubt, Write, Repeat

Doubt is such a funny, fickle thing.

One day I know that boy, I have a lot of work to do, but I’ll figure everything out eventually. Another it’s WOOOOP WOOOOP EMERGENCY THIS IS NOT A DRILL PROBLEMS ABOUND AND I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SOLVE THEM TAKE SHELTER AND PREPARE FOR IMPACT NOW.

The next I’ll come up with a fix. It’ll take me totally by surprise and reassure me to the moon.

The day after I’ll be sitting with my finger poised over send, biting my lip and sweating and second guessing everything because oh my god, someone else is going to read this, and maybe it seemed decent yesterday but it actually isn’t and I’ve read it so many times I can’t tell anymore and ahhHhHhHHhh I don’t know I just help?!?!????! (Eventually reason kicks in: This is why I’m getting outside feedback. I get the feedback; I make it better; life goes on.)

Here is what I’m coming to see: Doubt is a part of the process. But it’s not a one time step, knock it out of the way and you’re done; it’s a thread. It weaves through everything you do, every step of the way. It can come at any stage, at any strength, for any duration of time—and evaporate in the blink of an eye.

Being a writer means confronting your doubts again, and again, and again. It can be scary. It can be nerve-wracking.

But it can also be incredibly rewarding.

So the next time doubt swamps you, give yourself some credit and keep writing.

You’re right on track.

LOOK WHAT I BOUGHT TODAY

THE RESEARCH MAGNIFICENT, by H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds. Published 1915. Not only is this book a first edition; it is a ONE HUNDRED YEAR OLD first edition. One hundred years! This book has been around longer than most people alive today! It is a crazy and wonderful and thrilling thing to me to hold this artifact from another time in my hands, to inhale the smell of ink and yellow pages and think of those who may have read it before me. And best of all: I found it secondhand for $2.99. $ 2 . 9 9 !11!1!!1!!!!! </end geekout>

Ideas: Throwing Out vs. Digging Deep

Ideas are work.

More than once I have started down the path of a story idea and come up against major obstacles. “Ugh, that’s too trope-y,” or “No, that reminds me too much of [other book].” And you know what it’s tempting to do when you hit a big picture snag like that? Write the whole idea off. Because, who wants to waste time developing something problematic at its very foundation?

But here’s the thing.

“Obstacles” can be gotten round. “Problems” can be solved. X has already been done before? Big whoop. What’s new? (Certainly not the grievance that it’s all been done before.) Y is a hackneyed cliché that you’ll eat paste and die before subscribing to? Clichés are as old as time raised your ancestors, but they still managed to invent things. So do we.

My point is this: when you recognize a problem with an idea, that is not just cause for casting the idea away. That is cause for putting the problem under your microscope, studying it, and accepting it as your first creative challenge.

If the core of your idea, if the thing that first sparked it is original and raw and excites you, it is worth breaking rocks for.

What is the spark/heart/core of your idea? The spark is often the first thing about the idea that came to you. It could be a concept, a scene, a phrase, a spoken line. It is the thing from which everything else unfolds. It is the one essential, non-negotiable bone of your story (And here is what has been a recent revelation for me: Especially in the planning stages, most of your story is negotiable). If you can isolate the spark, you can carry it through different permutations until you find the pieces it fits with.

That’s not to say you mightn’t need to put an idea down for a while and let it sit, get some distance and perspective—but if you have your spark, and you can pinpoint your concerns—even the big picture ones—you can creative your way around them. Give them a twist. Come up with something else. Try new pieces on, cast old ones away or rearrange them.

But if the spark of your story grabs you, for fiction’s sake, don’t throw it out!

Dig deeper.

Some things to remember when brainstorming

The phrase “back to the drawing board” should not induce panic or stress. Starting a new project is like being released into the wild: you are free, and the world is yours to explore. Your art can go anywhere, limited only by the bounds of your imagination.

So why can it be SO DARN INTIMIDATING?

As I pass into another phase of idea generation myself (brainstorming not only for the “next” project, but numerous which I could see myself pursuing), I’m (re)discovering key things that enable me to proceed in what can be an otherwise paralyzing freedom. Because they help me, I hope they will also be of use to others.

When brainstorming, remember:

  1. It’s all been done before. And that’s okay. Embracing this can be liberating rather than constrictive. [Recommended reading on this.] [A helpful chart.]
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Not everything you write has to be toward your best novel yet, or even toward a novel at all. Pressure is crushing. Allow yourself to breathe.
  3. Writer’s block only truly happens when you stop writing. As long as you are writing, you are creating, and the act of creating is more important than whether what you create is good or not. (Hint: if you KEEP creating, even when you have nothing to say, every idea sucks, and you don’t know why in the name of France anyone ever encouraged you to pursue writing ever, eventually SOME of the stuff you make will be good, and you will find your springboard.)
  4. On the flip side of #3, epiphanies tend to occur away from the screen, so it’s also important to spend time not writing. This may sound totally contradictory to the previous point, but it isn’t. Writing is great for digging and jumpstarting and sometimes finding little pieces of your next idea, but often the great What if? questions that spurn whole novels come to us in the quiet moments we aren’t looking for them: washing dishes. Showering. Exercising. When we let our minds wander. So be sure to spend some time in a place your thoughts can unfold without interruption.
  5. When you’re really at a loss, go do something new. The greater our experience, the greater our pool to draw from. If your new experience doesn’t help you today, it may very well feed into another project tomorrow.

Other ideas? Share in comments below!

6 Ways to Read More (and Make Time to Read)

Those who don’t read often say it’s because they can’t find the time. Those who do read usually just want more of it. Inspired by National Readathon Day and a few recent conversations, I aim to offer both categories some quick tips on getting a bigger book fix.

These are not original ideas, and in fact I have a sneaking suspicion I may just be repeating what I read in On Writing (a fabulous guide by Stephen King) years ago. But here goes:

1. Always carry a book with you. Take it out whenever you find yourself waiting: in line, on the train, to meet a friend. No wait is too short to read a little more.

2. Audiobooks, audiobooks, audiobooks—the fantastic medium that allows us to experience prose while actively doing other things: cooking. Cleaning. Exercise. Driving. Art. The possibilities are endless. With audiobooks you don’t really even have to make time—you just have to recognize the activities that allow you to multitask.

3. Read before bed. You’d be surprised what headway you can make before drifting off to slumberland. Warning: in the case of extremely good reading, may result in missed hours of sleep.

4. Turn off the TV. For those that watch even half an hour of something a day, here is a golden opportunity to pick up a book instead. You don’t have to give up your favorite shows or choose books forever; you just have to make the decision to swap for the evening/day/hour. How much and how often are up to you.

5. Make a conscious trade. Maybe TV and movies aren’t what you do in your downtime. What is? Can you give it up a couple times a week, or maybe a full week, or over the course of a month and read instead?

6. Set a bar. Concrete, achievable goals are galvanizing and effective. By committing to a standard (one chapter a day, X hours a week, Y books a month or a year) you will read at a steady rate and finish your book(s) in due course.

Other ideas? Leave ’em in the comments below!