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!

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Homemade Calendar – November

nov 2014 calendar

Ok, I admit it: It’s become more about the art than crossing off the days. Which is great for getting in a minimum of one art project a month, but not for observing the date. I think next year I’ll go with a more practical calendar.

December is always a variable time of year– lots going on, people visiting, normal processes interrupted. I can say with certainty there will be reading, revising, guitar, and French for me, though it is difficult to say how much. I also recently bought a deck of tarot cards (I’ve been interested in learning more about them ever since some research I did for a story) and hope to start acquainting myself with reading basics in the coming weeks.

In other news: as of last month I completed one of my biggest goals for the year, which was to read 52 books, or roughly one a week! And there’s still several weeks to go…(Here I come, Landline and Thieves of Manhattan.)

What will your end of year activities look like?

Nanowritetips: 30 Writing Tips Inspired by NaNoWriMo

Throughout November I posted craft, structural, and speed writing tips on Twitter and Tumblr to aid those at work on a novel. Now that National Novel Writing Month is over, I present the complete list:

  1. Hook readers from the very first sentence. Keep them hooked with questions, tension, character, fascination, stakes.
  2. Don’t frontload with information. The story should move: start with action, and then quietly weave background throughout the opening chapters.
  3. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” –Kurt Vonnegut
  4. Fewer words pack greater punch.
  5. In high school, my writing class had to describe the sound of snow being stepped on without using the word crunch. Best answer? “Like a camel licking a cactus.” I STILL remember it. Lesson learned: when describing things, make vivid and unusual comparisons.
  6. Verbs and nouns over adjectives. Was it sour, or did it kick like a mule?
  7. If you want to get the story out, say goodbye to your delete key.
  8. Highlight and use placeholders for details you haven’t figured out yet. You can come back to them in revisions.
  9. The first draft is just for you. Don’t worry about plot holes, inconsistencies, weak prose, wrong accents. Just write.
  10. Getting away from the screen (for a shower, laundry, walk, etc.) is a great way to reach solutions when you get stuck.
  11. What’s on the line? There should be negative consequences if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants.
  12. When worried about bending the rules or doing something unconventional in your story, remember this: “When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.” —Neil Gaiman in his 2012 Keynote Address, aka the Make Good Art speech
  13. Write in the active, not passive voice. “Pandora opened the box.” Not “The box was opened by Pandora.”
  14. “End each chapter on a cliff.” See Writer’s Digest for more.
  15. Say things as directly as possible. (See: fewer words, tip #4)
  16. Things to avoid: clichés. Adverbs. Gratuitous exclamation points. Drugs. That boy your momma warned you about.
  17. Every sentence has a rhythm. Mind them, and arrange and vary to make music. Read This sentence has five words for more.
  18. Increase the stakes as the story progresses to keep readers turning pages.
  19. It’s easier to edit plop than nothing.
  20. Sensory details make vivid, sometimes lasting impressions. (See: “camel licking a cactus,” tip #5.)
  21. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” –Elmore Leonard
  22. Word count slump? Try writing in bursts. Timed sessions of 45 minutes – 1 hour are manageable and bring focus.
  23. Hold the reader’s attention. Things that don’t: excessive description, asides, internal thought, showing of research.
  24. Simple is best.
  25. Every scene, line, and word should serve a purpose.
  26. Short sentences heighten tension.
  27. Dialogue can also be used to imply what’s happening and things that aren’t being said.
  28. “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” –Stephen King
  29. Things that illicit a physical reaction from readers—laughter, tears, a wrinkled nose—are usually signs of a job well done.
  30. “The only universal rule is to write. Get it done, and do what works for you.” –Anne Rice

Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Supplemental Reading: Biomimicry

One thing I love about being an author is that the work encourages you to seek out interesting things, broaden your world, follow questions down the rabbit hole and BE FASCINATED. It’s kind of a free pass to go where the energy takes you because passion feeds passion, and if something you’re experiencing or learning about can funnel into your writing in any way, it is valuable as well as fascinating.

So, when a book outside my regular fiction addiction captures my interest, I give it a look-see. Recently my attention was won by a book on biomimicry, which I was not formerly acquainted with, and seeing the word and wondering what it meant I picked the book up and started reading.

HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS.

Because much of what I learned elicited physical responses from me (see: “WHAT?” “Whooooa…” “Ugh!” etc.), I decided that some of this just had to be shared, even if you, my dear reader, conclude I am an easily-excited nerd. Which I would not deny.

First: Biomimicry is just what it sounds like: design that mimics biological entities and processes.

Now try some of these examples on for size.

1. Past Olympic swimsuits have been modeled after sharkskin, whose grooved overlapping scales (dermal denticles: “little skin teeth”) make water pass more quickly. Speedo says 28 of 33 gold medals won in the 2000 Sydney Olympics were won by swimmers wearing their sharkskin-inspired suits. According to this source, dermal denticle swimsuits are now banned in major competitions.

Other athletic fabric has been inspired by pine cones. Pine cones of all things! Pine cones respond to humidity, opening to release when there is moisture inside and closing when it is out. In fabric, this releases an athlete’s sweat while also keeping them dry from outer elements.

 

2. There’s a technology in the works for an airplane “skin” that repairs itself the way human skin does, similar to clotting blood and the formation of a scab/new skin underneath (the latter highlighting the damage for technicians to more fully address).

“If the technique pans out, then aircraft, wind turbines and perhaps even spaceships of the future may boast embedded circulatory systems with an epoxy resin that can bleed into holes or cracks and then fluoresce under ultraviolet light to mark the damage like a bruise during follow-up inspections.” —NBC

3. The book I read discussed the imitation of gecko spatulae for adhesive used to attach skin grafts, but more recent studies appear to be looking to flesh-grabbing worms and beetle feet for design.

Finally, these little factoids aren’t quite biomimicry, but I encountered them in the same book:

1. Nacre— the iridescent lining of an abalone shell– has a brick-and-mortar style structure that can withstand being run over by a truck. More here.

2. There exists a flower called the CORPSE LILY, named for its odor of rotting flesh. The smell attracts the insects that pollinate it. *Repulsed and grotesquely fascinated* Actually, there’s more than one flower like this:

  • There’s the stinking corpse lily, rafflesia arnoldii, which is also the largest single-bloom flower in the world:
  • And then there’s the corpse flower, amophophallus titanium, which looks more like a calla lily, but is also ungodly large and classified as a carrion flower for its stench of death:

Are you not in awe (if slightly grossed out)?

 

 

Story ideas: Don’t scrabble for them. Dig.

It’s been a weird month, creatively speaking.

At the end of September, I was in serious doubt about the new book I was outlining. I had planned so much, could see certain scenes so clearly, and was so devilishly excited by them– but I had concerns, too. Big ones. Not only questions of POV and first or third person, but ones like: “Does this too closely resemble X?” and “Does too much of this ride on a hackneyed trope?” Instincts mean a lot in the arts, and these questions were enough to give me pause.

So I decided to let the story go. Or at least put it away for a while.

I went into October, then, with no project in progress– nothing I was actively working on, either writing or putting my head to. It was the first time I’ve experienced that since I started pursuing a career as an author.

It felt like this:

via Emily McDowell. And minus the “genius” part.

It was awful.

I racked my brain. I turned to old documents and file folders for interesting nuggets. I freewrote, made mind maps, compiled lists in search of a spark. I studied concepts, picked up books like Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, tried to jumpstart my subconscious.  I preoccupied myself, got out and away from the pressure; I deconstructed books hoping to learn something. But I had nothing.

I began to feel bleak, frustrated. Maybe even panicked.

Then, one day near the middle of the month, I had a REALLY COOL IDEA. Boom. Out of nowhere. I spent the morning and afternoon daydreaming about it, letting it run wild, taking notes. It had merit. I had something, and it felt good.

But by the end of the day, I recognized a familiar problem: though the premise was fresh (as far as I knew, anyway), the setup reminded me too much of other books.

I sighed and I put it away.

As a writer, you’re told everything’s been done before. Still, you burn to be original– or at the very least, not derivative (or anything that feels derivative, even if it isn’t). So I kept going.

Another week of creative purgatory– then, without warning, I found myself latched to an old idea I’d scribbled down months, maybe a year ago, but written off as bland, underdeveloped. But this time was different. This time it fused with another idea, and click– there was the spark.

I worked at it; began seeing scenes; connected more dots; loved it; came up against challenges; dealt with them. I WAS MOVING AGAIN. There was one point when I hit a wall (a big picture, scaffolding wall), but I couldn’t let the story go this time. Not this one, which I couldn’t stop thinking about and didn’t remind me of anything else. I told myself there was a solution; I just had to find it.

And after a few more days, I did.

There are two points to this post. First, sparks are unpredictable, but ideas are always work. You never know when you’ll get that flash of something bigger– but when you do, it is merely a matter of digging the story out. And digging can be done. Like solutions, stories are there; they have only to be found.

Second, however hopeless or creatively empty or absolutely, irrevocably certain you feel that you will never have another idea again, there are always ideas to be had. In less than a month I have seriously entertained plans for three entirely different novels (even if I ended up dismissing two). That’s a lot for someone feeling creatively frustrated.

Stories are all around us. Our job, when we catch a wink of one, is to write it down– and then come back with a pickaxe.

 

Chapter Awesome: IN WHICH JULIE GETS AN AGENT

Guys, it’s happened.

I have dreamt of being an author since grade school. For the last two and a half years I have worked at that dream aggressively, every day writing or reading or researching (or all of the above) in efforts to tell a good story, improve my craft, and start a career.

Today I am thrilled to announce that that dream just became part reality: I signed a contract.

I am now officially an agented author, represented by none other than the incredible Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency!

There is still much to be done before I can hold a printed book in my hands—revisions, submissions to publishers, and, if I’m lucky, even more revisions—but that’s okay. Today I am grateful and happy and proud just to have reached this crest in the journey. It may be a long way to the top of the mountain, but the view from here is pretty sweet.

P1060496-3

 

A Subconscious Exercise

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Haven’t done one of these in a while! Lately I’ve been trying to use more creative exercises (not strictly writing; in fact some that are specifically in other creative areas, like art and music) to better and more fully exercise my subconscious. I feel like much of the work of crafting stories happens off the page, when we are in rumination and our minds may wander and jump and connect. Blackout poetry is one such occasion to do so and, being creatively active, engages the mind differently than running or doing the dishes does. And when you’re done, you have a bit of art to show for it!

Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

This ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel or some quantifiable end. As I am between books right now and in search of the next story I want to pursue, this notion is both highly relevant and influential to me. In the last week, and in the last few days especially, I’ve been thinking a lot on what one can do for one’s book– before one is actively writing it. Or even planning it. Because believe me: as difficult as writing a novel can be, for a writer, not writing one (or rather, not even outlining one because you haven’t found your next true spark yet) is worse!

So here are some ideas for nourishing your next book before it comes into focus:

1. Read. A given for all writers at all stages. Reading improves your writing as well as your storytelling ability while exposing you to the stories/tropes already out there. Plus, it’s FUN!

2. Write every day. This should be another given for writers, but let me go a little further and advise committing to some kind of daily practice, like freewriting for 30 minutes each day. There might be a format that calls to you– letters, sonnets, journaling– but as a writer of fiction, it’s especially helpful to practice crafting scenes propelled by goals and conflict and tension. You can quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t, and you might even find something you want to draw out or use later. (The Brainstormer is one great source for prompts.)

3. Examine books that have resonated with you.  Ask why? Begin to see devices, formats, stylistic choices, outside-the-box thinking you admire. Even if it doesn’t directly feed into your next book, observation will get you thinking about something you might do– or do differently.

4. Create/refer to a list of things that capture your interest. Then pursue items on it through research, mind mapping, free association– and of course good old-fashioned experience (see below)! Try pairing items from the file together. Turning them on their head. Asking what you can do to reimagine or incorporate them into a narrative.

5. Get out. Try something new or go somewhere you’ve never been before. Give yourself more to draw from by broadening your experience in the world. Incidentally: new settings are great places to freewrite!

6. Study concepts. Have you ever coveted another book for its original idea? Writers often hear the term “high concept” to refer to ideas that are easily pitched, and often unique. (Two that I deeply admire: Logan’s Run, where people are only allowed to live to 21, and Delirium, where love is classified as a disease.)  Examining concepts gives one not only an appreciation for what has been done before (as well as a healthy reminder of how hard it can be to do something new), but a sense of the sort of things that might be done, and thus opens the way to broader thinking.

7. Study tropes, archetypes, motivations, etc. Not without significance are the smaller details that make every story what it is. Study the masters. Learn the parts. Then emulate and reinvent. Experiment and improve.

What do you do when not actively writing?

What’s in a reading? Some observations as attendee, as author

A former professor once said that she liked to think of readings as gifts: something that one gives one’s audience. That listeners can enjoy and take meaning, amusement, solace from. Or anything, really; it’s the author’s gift to give. What it does is, by and large, up to them.

I am fortunate to live in a city never wanting for literary events. This year, especially as it was one of my writing resolutions to attend more readings, I have had the chance not only to experience these events, but to observe just what sort of “gifts” their authors are giving.

Here are some observations I’ve made– both as an attendee, and as an author taking notes for the hopeful Someday she might be on the other side of the podium. First,

As a listener:

1. Most readings consist of the same parts: introduction/stand up (the author introduces him/herself and drops a few well-chosen lines to get listeners laughing and engaged); the actual reading of material from the book the author is there to promote; open Q&A with the audience; the signing of books.

2. Every author reads differently. Some authors read a great deal. Some don’t. Some read from books other than what they are there to promote, or in addition to it, and some read what they’re working on now or just wrote that morning.

3. Distraction happens. People sneeze. Babies cry. Small children, and occasionally long lines of teenagers thread through the audience or before the podium at THE MOST inconvenient occasions. A speaker can either read on, or, as David Mitchell did, take it in stride: acknowledge a running child with, “Hello, little person!” a throng of teens with “Hi guys!” and a crying infant with “It’s my reading, and he can cry if he wants to.” For me, this last approach really harkens back to the gift-giving aspect: rather than shaming these people or willfully ignoring them (or indeed competing with them for the audience’s attention), one is reaching out to the source(s) of distraction in a respectful, playful, and even inviting manner. Thus rather than a nuisance, it becomes a bit of fun for the audience, and parents/sneezers/wanders-through are more likely to feel gratitude than embarrassment. Might even gain some new listeners.

As an author:

1. There is more than one way to engage with an audience. What a speaker can do beyond speaking is perhaps limited by context, but there’s a certain amount of room for creativity here. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, at one point discussed the small indulgence of appreciating smell, and as a sort of enhancing prop passed around vials of some of her favorite handmade scents.

As someone with classroom experience, I could see engagements taken in other directions, too: shows of hands. Short games. Trivia with candy/literary/other prizes. As long as it’s relevant.

2. What a presenter can give is not limited to a great performance. I’m thinking specifically of David Sedaris here, who makes a point of giving his listeners (particularly teens, who it is rarer to see at readings) some kind of physical token to take home. He gives small things, random things: tiny plastic toys, postcards,  bracelets, hotel shampoos, packets of honey mustard, things from his pockets, sometimes things former listeners have gifted him (like a small box of chocolates, which he couldn’t eat).

Obviously this is one to exercise good judgment with, but for Mr. Sedaris’s standard genre (humorous creative nonfiction) it’s both amusing and appropriate. And what an unusual, lasting impression it makes!

3. If you’re trying to generate interest in something other than your book, a reading may be a good place to do it. I have seen newsletter signups passed around (Rubin) and authors promoting another author’s book alongside their own (Sedaris). Both alluded to these extras only briefly, and did so in a non-intrusive way.

Again, though, it’s all about relevance. Most readings are not places for promoting political agendas, etc.

4. If you don’t want to take pictures with people, you don’t have to. As a presenting author, you can work with the bookstore/library/school etc. staff to establish some ground rules beforehand. While some speakers are naturally photogenic and happy to pose with those getting their books signed, others would prefer not to pose, and some would rather not take pictures at all. David Sedaris mentions a sly trick in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: he asks the bookstores to put out a large sign forbidding photography, and makes it sound like it’s their policy that photos not be taken.

5. Engagement doesn’t have to end at the event. Many authors are on social media, and some take to the Tweets (/tumbls, etc.) after a reading to continue engaging with people who came to see them.

BJ Novak favorited my Tweet. I felt Twitter famous.

When I learned that my manuscript made a reader I’ve never met or spoken to laugh and cry multiple times — in GIFs

First I was like:

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Then I was like:

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and:

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and:

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and:

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I’d say “My work here is done,” but it isn’t. Cause revisions.

And that whole publication thing.

But still.

–Reposted from my tumblr.