During National Novel Writing Month I am hunting for my next story idea. A new idea every day. Not sure if any will stick, but maybe it’ll help you find your next idea too via Inspiration Falls
Life can make it so very difficult to gain momentum with the things we love doing. As I think about my many cycles of writing it is highlighted by the stutter stop effect. There are good times of coasting, making strides, WORLD BUILDING! but then life inevitably complicates a good thing and the everyday writing becomes hit or miss until it is completely stalled.
It gets tempting to throw in the towel. But inevitably my darlings beckon. My characters nudge my thoughts for some attention. I turn my computer on to pay the bills and a pesty muse redirects me to open a writing folder. The engine starts to stutter until I demand that life makes room for me to write. Again. Finding hidden minutes, keeping the dictaphone on the passenger’s seat, waking up before the kids. It is possible because
Writers must write.
Dogs must bark.
Children must play.
Trees must sway in the wind.
Who am I to deny the way I was created? So write I must, write I will.
And it feels so good!
I remember spending endless hours at a green blackboard that was taller than me for short while. At first I used it for drawing and scribbling, but soon my pine-green canvas became an instrument upon which I used to teach my imaginary class all kinds of interesting things: simple addition, subtraction, and printing. The math progressively became harder and the printing turned into cursive. Over time, that blackboard became a display case for scientific facts, historical figures, a running record of who got detentions for interrupting my spelling bee, and of course, homework assignments. The blackboard became smarter, its simplicity long gone, and my love for it faded. Now the only sign of it is the eraser dust it left behind in the cracks of my bedroom floor.
The best gift we can give our children this holiday season cannot be unwrapped. Our love and time and opportunities to grow their imaginations are far more valuable than anything we can put a bow on.
Have a wonderful time making treasured memories this holiday season.
When you watched arguably the best baseball game in recent history and held your breath during the ninth inning after the Cubs didn’t get any runner in, waiting to see what the Indians would do, then to go to a rain delay, and the incredible tenth inning, I bet you didn’t notice the fundamentals. Watching how the players gripped the ball before they threw it, or how the hitter aligned his knuckles, or the outfielders using 2 hands to catch the ball probably escaped you. The strike outs, the homerun, and that throw from Bryant to Rizzo! Holy cow! The big plays. That’s what gets us. But we don’t get the big plays without endlessly practicing those fundamentals.
Think about young Bryant and Rizzo playing little league, practicing catching the hit to third, throwing to first, catching, tagging the runner and the base. Day after day. Year after year. Messing up many times along the way.
Well, my dear writing friend, we have our own set of fundamentals that will hopefully lead to your own big play.
1. Write, everyday possible.
2. Read, read, read. Read what’s in your genre. Read what’s not in your genre. Read craft books to help you critique and edit your own work.
3. Join or form a critique group. Not sure what to do with one? Here’s a suggestion. The most important thing to bring to group is a willingness to hear your weaknesses. The best thing to offer at group is your reaction to the piece. You have an opinion, yes. But it’s one opinion. The author ultimately must decide what to do with the feedback.
This is my critique group, the Six Pens. (One is not pictured.) We are picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, non-fiction, memoir, education, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, fantasy, humor, action/adventure, heart-rending writers. There’s lots of opinions to go around. Two are published, with one more story on the horizon.(Whoop! Whoop!) We are all hopeful. And we need each other to keep applying butt to chair and writing when the motivation is running low.
4. Go to conferences. And watch your local writer’s society for smaller craft nights. My critique group attended the recent Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day that the Illinois SCBWI chapter holds every November. It sharpened and inspired. And we can pool together the different things each of us learned from it to edify our group as a whole.
I bet you can’t tell, but this is my critique group again. We are now the Super Six Pens, tackling troublesome stories in a single bound (or many revisions.) Another bonus of attending conferences is open door access to editors at otherwise closed houses. If you don’t have an agent already, this is golden!
5. Never, ever, ever give up. I once heard it said, that many successful writers started with 10% talent and 90% dedication. I’m six years in, I’m receiving incredible feedback from agents and authors who critique my work. I’m not published yet. YET.
Never. Ever. Ever give up!
After a recent, especially helpful critique I was left with the impression I needed to mainly focus on two things. The first was moving a wrongly placed conflict. It didn’t surprise me. I had had a feeling about it myself, but justified it at the same time. The beauty of writing is the save as button. Nothing has to change forever. If I decide I like the original way better than the revised way, I can revert. But it’s always worth the try to do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, something you are not quite certain about. It may turn out to be magic.
The other big note is on world building. And admittedly, here is where I struggle. It’s historical fiction. And I’ve done A LOT of research on the time period and the events in my story. How do I build this world of long ago without dumping all of this info onto the page? Then there’s the question of what do I do about the areas that are fuzzy? The areas the research didn’t reveal? Do I fill in the gaps creatively or find a way around them?
My brain leads me to further research, but of a fun kind, for me. I got to reading. Here are the seven things I’ve gleaned from the first three chapters of seven historical fictional novels. Hopefully it will lead me to build one vivid world.
The seven books I studied:
- Paper Wishes (2016) by Lois Sepahban
- Down the Rabbit Hole (2013) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
- Number the Stars (1989, oldish, but my favorite Newbery winner) by Lois Lowry
- The War that Saved my Life (2015) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Worth (2004) by A. LaFaye
- Dash (2014) by Kirby Larson
- Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson
*Timeout for a plug. One of these lovely authors is the person who critiqued my first three chapters. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Kidlit College for opportunities to grow your craft. Ms. LaFaye empowered me to plunge back into a story that had become stale, helped me to see the good in it, and showed me where I needed to grow in a way that made me feel strengthened instead of diminished. Besides, hearing words like compelling piece and powerful story is a confidence boost that makes the baby seem a little less ugly. FYI the Novel Direct Contest is open until November 1, 2016. *
The good news is there’s no one way to do this. The bad news is there’s no one way to do this. So, more often than not, here is what I discovered.
- Five of the seven are written in first person. An advantage of this is keeping the movie camera super zoomed in and noticing only what the character would notice. Like in The War that Saved my Life, Ada had no idea there was a world war brewing outside of her flat because she was imprisoned in her home. A disadvantage of first person narratives is being unable to ever leak information to your reader that your protag wouldn’t know.
- Mine is written in third-person limited. I think this is working for me, for now. Third-person limited is similar to first person in that the protag must be in every scene and only his thoughts and feelings are divulged, the others’ may be inferred. But I may play with first person. It seems easier for the reader to sink into the skin of the protag.
- The story is in the specifics. After completing my last rough draft, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She has an entire chapter called the story is in the specifics. But the specifics, the details, must have a story reason to be there, not just a cool piece of research I picked up and want to fit in. For example, in Number the Stars, the second chapter is nearly all back story, told through a bedtime story that led to a flashback, that delivers a vital theme of the story. A boy tells a Nazi soldier that all of Denmark is a bodyguard to the king. In the third chapter, Annemarie realizes that all of Denmark must also now be a bodyguard to the Jews.
- In Down the Rabbit Hole, Pringle is very keen to notice people’s fashion. Valuable story retail space is taken with details about the fashion of 1871. I doubt Susan Campbell Bartoletti chose emphasizing fashion over decor, for example, because it is what interested her. I’m sure there is a story reason. But only having read the opening pages, I have yet to discover if I’m right.
- I have a lot of specific information I know from all of my research. But like Lisa Cron wrote, “The more details the writer gives us, the fewer we’ll remember, proving, once again, that as with most things in life, less is more.” If it doesn’t have a story reason, pitch it.
- Don’t just world build for the sake of painting the picture for your reader. There must be reason for it. For example, in The War that Saved my Life, Ada leaves her flat for the first time, ever. As a writer, I’d be tempted to tell of all the things she would be seeing for the first time as she’s walking with her brother to school and running away from her mother. But if Ada were a real person, and we treat our characters like they are, than in reality she wouldn’t notice these things around her. She was in such terrible pain from walking on her crippled foot that she had to crawl a block. At which point the reader learns about the trash and the mud that she must crawl through to escape.
- What this means to me, is that I have to know my character so well to know what would stand out to him. How much do I pay attention to the color on my wall or the the way I sink into my couch? If it’s everyday to my character, he probably wouldn’t notice it either. And if there’s an emotionally or physically strenuous scene going on, he sure wouldn’t notice the crackling sounds of the wood in the fireplace. I know you have incredible talent at painting a beautiful picture. But state of mind of your protag and moving the story forward trump pretty words.
- Historical information is weaved in organically. Very rarely does the story tell us off the bat the time period of the story. But we often quickly get the sense of time period. Consider the everyday items of today that were different then. In Worth we get clues through the necessary details of the story like using horses and a wagon to do the field work on the farm, or that Ma is a tinker. Her job has two layers of story reason, but it also puts us back in time. In Dash, while riding the bus Mitsi notices signs in stores saying, “We don’t serve Japs.” That’s more than a good piece of research. It’s a detail that is setting the stage for future scenes.
- If I’m reading my critique correctly, this is what Ms. Lafaye referred to as double duty detail. Meaning it has a story reason to be there, but it’s also giving us a sense of the time or setting.
- Sometimes we have to get back matter in. This could be through a flash back, which reads like a scene, or by carefully placing in back story. But again, there must be story reason. (Note the example above from Number the Stars)
- Example of back story from Paper Wishes: I pretend everything is normal and go to my room. Once, I shared my room with my sister, Keiko, and my brother, Ron. They are far away now, in India… Seeing something sparks a piece of backstory that is necessary for future scenes. But if it’s not necessary for upcoming story, then that piece of backstory can remain in your prewriting journal.
- A flashback reads more like a scene. Here’s an example from Down the Rabbit Hole: I remember his voice crackled like static air before a storm. “Pringle, I have terrible news.” Yet I plunged ahead, unafraid. I was Alice, chasing the White Rabbit. “It’s Gideon,” I said.
- Yes, my story has quite a bit of back matter that fuels future story pieces, but I have to be sure its revelation is triggered by something happening in the present and that its reason for being brought up is quickly revealed.
- We’ve got more than vision, so use the other senses when possible. In Worth, Nathaniel is trapped in his room with a broken leg, for weeks. He sees the same four walls 24/7. Imagine how bored he would be and we don’t want to bore the readers. Instead, his ears become his eyes. He can tell his dad is wearing his Sunday boots on Saturday by the way they sound and that has great story reason because that means dad is going somewhere important. Lisa Cron warns, “Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
- I’m starting to get the meaning of advice I’ve heard at many conferences, every word must earns its position on the page. Every sensory detail must be informing the reader or else they will tune it out or worse, get bored and close the book.
- Does age matter? Only in Number the Stars is the specific age of the character revealed. In the other six, the reader is able to estimate the age based on how the character behaves and interacts with others. In reality, how often does age come up in real life? It’s not often on our mind, so it most likely wouldn’t be on your characters’ minds either. Yet, isn’t that one of the things we often ask in critique groups, how old is your character?
What do you think? How important is it to tell the age of your protag? Or maybe it’s better to show it.
Okay, I have six books to finish reading and an opening of a story to reshape. Lots to do. Always lots to do!
This is the face of satisfaction:
But it’s really like this:
258 free verse poems roughed
it’s an ugly baby right now
but it’s complete!
And it doesn’t take long to feel like this:
Reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
while revising older stories
and researching people and places to submit to.
Marinating on the two ideas
I’m contemplating for my next projects
the research I need to complete
to round out the rough draft
before going through the
MANIA OF REVISION!
OOH! Now I can get that haircut I told myself had to wait until rough was done.
Rough is done!
Phillip Larrea, a poet from California, is credited with creating the poetic form called Tricube. It is deceptively simple. Three stanzas. Three lines per stanza. Three syllable per line.
Time to play!
time to write
Towel* wrapped bod
wet foot prints.
Dash through house
kids not shocked
“it’s just mom.”
drip down too.
*Okay, towel is technically two syllables, but not when you say it the normal way, right?
Sound the alarm!
Sound the alarm!
There’s a rumbly monster outside!
It’s getting nearer.
It’s getting closer.
It’s coming for us!
Time for the power bark!
It’s passing us!
We’ve got it running for cover!
You better keep going you yellow-bellied giantly rumbler!
Our alarm has worked!
We have protected our people!
Now we can return to sleep.
or maybe a good bone would be better.
Yes! I could go for a good gnaw.
That monster got me all worked up.
This bone will get me all worked down.
Just gnaw, gnaw, gnaw
now grind, grind, grind.
Now the other side.
gnaw, gnaw, gnaw
grind, grind, grind
OOH! Sue’s eyes are open.
but she’s not blinking.
she’s just staring
i better make sure
she’s not moving.
I think I’ll go sniff her.
her eyes are following me!
I bet she’s proud
of the way
the rumbly monster away
now she will give me
the best good morning scratch
One of the great things about going to a conference is coming home with a big fat list of books to read. If they could help me find more time to read that would be just downright magical.
From the four keynote addresses, the eight break out sessions, and the one intensive, I give you books to first enjoy and then study. You are probably well read and already familiar with many of these, but I encourage you to take another look to grow your craft.
From the intensive on voice with Heather Alexander, literary agent from Pippin Properties comes most of the books. Though we discussed what each did well in voice, they all are great studies in the craft of writing:
- Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (in my Goodreads review I said Gary Schmidt wrote Wednesday Wars just so he could meet the MC for Okay for Now. This book also made my list of top 25 books I’m glad were written. Don’t miss this one!)
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (Heather called this one of the most vulnerable YA characters we’ve had in a long time.)
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson(Language is important! Imagine what a different story this would be if the homonym was used instead, I’ll Give You the Son!)
- Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
- Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
- The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
- Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater
- Roller Girl – Victoria Jamieson
- Pax – Sara Pennypacker
A book that has changed the world:
- A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Picture Books that demonstrate tight lean writing
- All Alone by Kevin Henkes
- The New Girl by Jacqui Robbins
- Star Bright by Allison McGhee
- Zombie in Love by Kelly DiPucchio
The author has a clear sense of the backstory
- Wonder by RJ Palacio
- Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
Best first sentence, according to Sarah Aronson:
- What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman
- The Rag Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
Books on the Craft of Writing
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch
- Writing Stories by Carolyn Coman
Happy reading and creating!
Go ahead update your to-read list on Goodreads.