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.

10 Reading/Writing Goals for 2015

  1. Read 52+ books.
  2. Attend 3-5 readings.
  3. Beta read for at least two new people.
  4. Read at least one new book on the craft of writing.
  5. Freewrite and do more exercises when not actively novel writing.
  6. Revise Project A until next stage.
  7. Revise Project B until next stage.
  8. Plot, research for, and begin writing new book. Ideally finish first draft this year (though that may depend on how/where things go with A and B).
  9. Pursue new experiences (which feed the pen).
  10. Volunteer at local book festival.

2014 in Review: Statistics, Fave Books, Lessons Learned

It’s that time of year again! Here’s what my 2014 as a reader/writer looked like:


Reading/Writing Stats

# projects worked on: 4

projects abandoned: 1

projects shelved to come back to: 2

projects currently on worktable: 1


# books read: 54+

books purchased: 27? (Holy Schmoe.)

given as gifts: 7?


# readings attended: 5? (Lauren Oliver, David Sedaris, David Mitchell, BJ Novak, Gretchen Rubin)


Favorite Books Read This Year


  1. I got an agent. — plus all the work that led up to it.
  2. I wrote the entire first draft of a MG project (separate from the YA book I queried and signed with an agent).
  3. I read 54 books, + several beta reads and nonfiction.
  4. I finished the rough draft of an illustrated project – very rough, because writing is my strong suit and art is secondary. I’m not convinced I should count this one because I’ve flagged so much of it for redoing it makes my head spin, and right now that just isn’t a high priority. But I would like to come back to it.

Lessons Learned

  1. It’s okay to abandon/retire a project. It’s important to finish things you start, but it’s also important to recognize when something isn’t working, won’t work, or when you’ve lost enthusiasm and your efforts would be better spent elsewhere.
  2. It’s okay to shelve a project indefinitely. I had a few ideas this year I was super jazzed about, only to start seeing fundamental problems with them in early development (e.g., reminded me too much of another book, or wanted to be a trilogy when what I want to write right now is standalone). So I put those projects, along with all of my notes and planning for them, carefully aside in folders that can be easily filed back to when the time is right.
  3. Beta readers are absolute gold. In theory I knew this already, but in practice I appreciated it even more. Love your readers: They will help you find the weak spots.
  4. Is it good? An obvious question, but when evaluating my own work, I’ve found it to be the ultimate measuring stick. Time may be the best aide for seeing a manuscript objectively, but asking yourself whether passages move/compel you is a close second.
  5. Is it necessary? The other essential question that’s helped me through my many revisions this year. This one is great 1) for reducing your word count and 2) consequently tightening your story, which will result in a swifter, stronger read.


How was your 2014 in books? Any pieces I’m missing?

Ye Olde Reading Liste

– very late that night –

(Panting) OK. OK. I think I finally got it. I’ll still have to update it manually, but I managed to get pretty dang close to the shiny Goodreads montage without the help of widgets. Check out my new Reading List page here!


– 1.5 hours later –

So I thought I could just add a cheeky Goodreads widget and have this beautiful, automatically updating montage of books read and books to read on my Reading List page, but ahahahaha, oh-hoho I was wrong. WordPress does not support the necessary javascript, and even with the simplest widget Goodreads offers, WordPress displays it wrong.

SO my friends, it appears I’ll be getting creative. Stay tuned.


As my TBR list sprawls wildly out of control– hard to read, nearing 200 items, and hopelessly behind on both additions and books I’ve actually finished– I have decided to move from a written list to a system that will be easier to process and less work to maintain.

But before I do, I thought I would post the old list here as a sort of memento of times past, and also a celebration of the progress I’ve made in my efforts to read more since starting this blog. As many items as there are remaining, there are quite a few crossed off, too. And who doesn’t enjoy the satisfaction of items crossed off a list?

While living in Japan, where I had very slim access to books in English, I started a reading list. Containing novels, nonfiction, plays, speeches, classics, books for teens, children, and adults, the list quickly ran wild. It continues to grow, taking over cities, genres, and age groups and plotting world domination faster than I can pare it down. Keep an eye out for additions– if we aren’t careful, they just might block out the sun.

Julie’s Assorted To-Read List, in no particular order:

  1. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (9/4/2013)
  2. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
  3. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (5/27/2012)
  4. Food Rules by Michael Pollan (7/15/2013)
  5. And The Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman
  6. The Illiad by Homer (1/22/2012)
  7. The Odyssey by Homer (3/14/2014)
  8. The Aeneid by Virgil
  9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1/22/2014)
  10. Infero by Dante Alighieri
  11. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (9/27/2011)
  12. Paradise Lost by John Milton (11/18/2011)
  13. How to Be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith
  14. Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (8/4/2011)
  15. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (4/29/2012)
  16. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  17. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez (9/17/2013)
  18. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (4/2011)
  19. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  20. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (3/21/2013)
  21. Public Enemies by Bernard Henri Levi
  22. Greek & Roman Myths
  23. Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
  24. Dubliners by James Joyce (11/3/2011)
  25. Ulyssess by James Joyce
  26. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1/12/2014)
  27. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (9/14/2011)
  28. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1/14/2013)
  29. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (10/10/2013)
  30. The Prince by Machiavelli (1/10/2014)
  31. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  32. House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  33. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (2/11/2012)
  34. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (6/30/2013)
  35. A Strategy of Peace (commencement speech) by JFK (1/20/2014)
  36. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5/28/2013)
  37. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  38. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (10/6/2011)
  39. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (10/12/2012)
  40. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (9/10/2012)
  41. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (5/22/2013)
  42. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  43. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (3/24/2012)
  44. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12/3/2011)
  45. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (1/6/2013)
  46. The Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu
  47. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (12/11/2011)
  48. Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy (2/22/2012)
  49. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  50. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (6/7/2012)
  51. Imagine by Jonah Lehrer (2/14/2014)
  52. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  53. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  54. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  55. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (9/25/2013)
  56. A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
  57. The Fate of the Species by Fred Guterl* (research for my WIP!) (1/20/2013)
  58. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (5/25/2014)
  59. Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassaunt
  60. On Writing by Stephen King (9/16/2012)
  61. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (2/10/2014)
  62. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  63. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  64. John Dies at the End by David Wong (11/1/2013)
  65. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
  66. The Cider House Rules by John Irving (3/3/2013)
  67. Martin Eden by Jack London
  68. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
  69. Germinal by Émile Zola
  70. Jumper by Steven Gould (4/7/2013)
  71. Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
  72. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (10/2/2013)
  73. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  74. Legend by Marie Lu (2/16/2014)
  75. The Beach by Alex Garland
  76. Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
  77. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  78. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (7/18/2013)
  79. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  80. The Giver by Lois Lowry (3/3/2014)
  81. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (3/18/2014)
  82. Tenth of December by George Sanders (7/4/2013)
  83. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (8/23/2013)
  84. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (8/8/2013)
  85. Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (8/22/2013)
  86. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  87. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
  88. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  89. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  90. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (10/15/2014)
  91. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  92. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  93. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (1/31/2014)
  94. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (11/12/2013)
  95. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (1/4/2014)
  96. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (11/27/2013)
  97. Vicious by V.E. Schwab (12/6/2013)
  98. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (3/1/2014)
  99. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (11/13/2014)
  100. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (12/23/2013)
  101. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  102. Coraline by Neil Gaiman (5/25/2014)
  103. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  104. Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann (12/16/2013)
  105. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  106. Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  107. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (7/26/2014)
  108. Looking for Alaska by John Green (9/6/2014)
  109. Divergent by Veronica Roth (2/24/2014)
  110. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  111. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (1/21/2014)
  112. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
  113. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
  114. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
  115. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  116. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  117. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
  118. Prodigy by Marie Lu (#2 in the Legend series)
  119. Insurgent by Veronica Roth (#2 in the Divergent series)
  120. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  121. The Cavendish Home for Girls and Boys by Claire Legrand (3/21/2014)
  122. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier (4/3/2014)
  123. The Theory of Everything by Kari Luna
  124. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (3/28/2014)
  125. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (4/14/2014)
  126. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (7/28/2014)
  127. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  128. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  129. Wool by Hugh Howey (4/25/2014)
  130. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (5/6/2014)
  131. After by Kristin Harmel (5/1/2014)
  132. 34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues (5/2/2014)
  133. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  134. If I Stay by Gayle Forman (9/9/2014)
  135. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
  136. Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
  137. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (5/15/2014)
  138. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  139. Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
  140. Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver (5/31/2014)
  141. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  142. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (6/8/2014)
  143. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
  144. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman (6/14/2014)
  145. Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull (6/26/2014)
  146. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (7/7/2014)
  147. The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
  148. Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin
  149. The Shining by Stephen King
  150. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  151. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (11/28/2014)
  152. The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
  153. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (10/12/2014)
  154. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
  155. Landline by Rainbow Rowell (12/8/2014)
  156. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
  157. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (8/13/2014)
  158. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum
  159. Paris in Love by Eloisa James
  160. Delirium by Lauren Oliver (8/31/2014)
  161. 17 First Kisses by Rachael Allen (9/17/2014)
  162. The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Dougas (10/19/2014)
  163. The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow by Jessica Haight and Stephanie Robinson
  164. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder (8/21/2014)
  165. Paper Towns by John Green
  166. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
  167. Last Train to Babylon by Charlee Fam
  168. Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
  169. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  170. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (10/23/2014)
  171. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
  172. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
  173. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

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.


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)?



Coming soon: Nanowritetips!

As October rolls to a close, many of us are gearing up for Nanowrimo. (Nanowrimo: (n.) the month for which your writer friends transform into coffee-crazed, unwashed trolls in efforts to write 1,667 words a day, or 50,000 words of a novel by the end of November.)

This year, although I won’t be participating myself, I’m excited to announce that one of my projects this month was compiling craft, structural, and speed writing tips, and that for the month of November, I will be posting these tips, one each day, at 5:30pm EST on Twitter and 10:30pm EST on Tumblr. (Note: same tips, just at different times.) At the end of the month I will post the complete list here.

Why Twitter and Tumblr? Because Nanowrimo, for those of us crazy/driven enough to do it, is about the writing. Not the reading about the writing. And I figure that even non-Nano writers might appreciate insights in less than 140 characters. Everybody loves brevity.

I will actually be Tweet/Tumbling the first of these pointers tomorrow, as the first two deal with pre-Nano planning. I’ll also have a few after November to help with post-Nano revisions.

Look for my tips  under the hashtag #nanowritetip—and good luck!

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.