Recently in Inspiration Category

How Do You Choose?

light-bulbs-1822112_1920.jpegI've heard people say they have so many ideas they don't know which one to write. Having a lot of ideas is great, but it can also be a form of procrastination or indetermination. Don't get caught in a trap of endless idea generation that means you never write.

Here's what works for me when choosing ideas. I'll address different categories of writing.

Magazine Piece Ideas

I've sold over a hundred and fifty short stories and articles. If I'm in the midst of writing a story and another idea comes to mind, I open a file write down my ideas and save it in a folder labeled Story Starts or Article Ideas. Then I get back to the original story. When I finish my first draft of the piece, then I can move on to a new idea or an unfinished story or article.

But let's say today I have no stories or articles in progress--just ideas. How do I choose? I look at my ideas. Some may feel "meh." (At least at the moment.) Others may look interesting, but I'm missing something to make it compelling and I'm not sure what, so I set it aside. Another idea is intriguing, so I start writing. Why look for other ideas if this one looks good? Go ahead and write it. If no ideas grab me, I look at editorial calendars and theme lists. I may have something already written that fits or need minor adjusting, or this outside input may be the missing inspiration I need for an idea on file. Or it may inspire me to write something totally new.

It helps me to finish stories by knowing these things:
1. The main character's problem
2. How he/she will solve the problem
3. Something of the character's personality
4. Setting

For most articles, some research will be required. What information can I find? Are there books on the topic? Good internet sources? Good articles written for adults? Interviews? Diaries? While I'm looking at this material and taking notes, I ask myself, "What will be the focus on my article?" "What will be especially of interest to kid readers?" Sometimes the research will point at another idea, which goes in my idea file.

I've also done interviews for articles. That takes preparation too. Finding someone interesting to interview, arranging the interview, preparing intelligent questions, taking notes on their answers and taking pictures. If allowed, I tape the interview. My notes might include details about the person and setting and observations about what they do as well as direct quotes. Then I have to look over my notes, perhaps listen again to the interview, look at the pictures, and start organizing my article. I find it helpful to make a mini-outline after I've written a piece to see if it works or needs rearranging. (I'm not an outliner.)

When I'm done with the first draft of a story or article, I can move on to another idea. Giving the draft a week or more to settle while I work on other things helps me come back with fresh eyes to do editing. After that, I share with my critique group and do another rewrite (or two or three) before submitting.

TIP: If you never finish any stories or articles, you'll never have the satisfaction of a complete piece. Nor sales.

Picture Book Ideas

Picture books are usually going to take a lot more work to get right than a short story. I have to be really motivated by the idea. Does that mean I jump in and write it? Often, not. I might look and see if there are similar books out there on the topic. If too many, then it's not a good topic to write unless I have a fresh twist. I might abandon the idea or throw it in an idea file.

I may need to do some research on character or setting before I begin to write. What will work the best for this story idea? Who will be the right character for this story? I have to think of character names that fit. I might do research on objects or an experience I want to include in the story.

Sometimes ideas come almost full blown. I lie down at night and keep thinking of the story. I wake up in the morning and the story is nagging me. I may not want to get dressed, eat breakfast or do anything, but get to the keyboard. Does that mean the picture book comes out perfect first time? Absolutely not! But it usually means I'll get a first draft written in a hurry.

Again, all my picture books go through revisions before my critique group sees them. They may go through several rounds with my group as well. Sometimes I get a professional critique, too.

TIP: Write to the end, even if you don't like your first draft. You'll learn something by doing so.

Novel Ideas

Novels are a big commitment--usually a number of years for me. I have to know the main problem, have a character, and have an idea how the problem might be solved before I write anything. I have a number of novel starts--a page or two or even a chapter--where I didn't know enough and couldn't get going because of it.

Ideas I'll develop into a novel have to have a theme that resonates with me. I've discovered that many of my manuscripts deal with the theme of facing fears. Having a theme helps provide a partial roadmap for the story.

These story ideas may be inspired by past experiences, by the voice of a character, or by a predicament I've read about or imagined. I start with the one that is tugging me most.

I try to finish a draft of one novel manuscript before starting another. However, sometimes a new story is pressing me so much, I work on two projects. Of course, at any time, I may stop and make notes on a new idea that I'll attack later. While writing that first draft, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my characters are doing, do any necessary research, and keep plugging away until I reach the end. Once I have a completed draft, I may let it "sit a spell" and work on something else so I can come back to it with fresh eyes for revisions.

Just like with the other forms of writing, my critique group gives me feedback.

TIP: As a pantser (versus an outliner), I find the use of a story timeline or story ladder helps me keep track of the who, where, and when of each of my scenes and chapters.

Assigned Writing

Sometimes writers are asked to write on a specific topic which means they didn't have to find the initial idea. This often includes a deadline. But I'll leave that discussion for another time.

Does It Matter Which Idea I Choose?

Eventually. But I've found all writing, helps develop my writing muscles and skills. I find the more I write, the more I want to write. Picking an idea and going with it will get you in the habit of writing. So, don't agonize too long over which idea to develop--write!

I love this quote from John M. Cusick, "Writers, your job today is to sit down and start. Finishing, getting better, getting through it--that will happen on its own. Just start."


Diverse Books

DiversityinChildren'sBooks.jpg
I have 271 book recommendation posts on my blog--some of those include multiple books. When I started the blog ten years ago, there wasn't such a big push for diversity as there is now. Recently, I was curious how many of my entries were about diverse books. Doing some research, I discovered 49 of the entries had books with diverse characters who were integral to the story. (That's about 18 percent.) The books were not necessarily fully focused on diversity, but at least presented an important character who was nonwhite or other "abled." (If you want to see what books are included, search my blog for diversity or go to this link where I've done the search for you.) If I'd looked at the fantasy books, many of them would fit the diversity category too, as fantasy books often deal with characters who are different from the mainstream of their culture, but I don't think those books are usually counted as diverse.

I didn't set out to read "diverse" books specifically. Fortunately, I was raised to believe people are people despite skin color, cultural differences, etc., which means when I hear of a good book, or pick up a book, I'm not automatically offended because the main character is not like me on the outside. What I see as I read is that these characters are so like me on the inside. Which is why it is so important for "white" kids, "abled" kids, poor, middle class, and rich kids to read these books. They need to see we are more alike than we are different!

On the other hand, according to the 2015 Census, about 62% of Americans are white only, 17% are Hispanic or Latino only, 13% are black only, 6% are Asian only, 1% are Native American or Alaskan, and 2.5% are two or more races. (Note: Arabs are classified as "white" for censuses.) And these statistics don't include "differently abled." But even with these skewed figures, it'd be hoped that good books are written by/about 40% nonwhite "abled" people. Because people who fit these "other" categories deserve to see themselves represented in story too.

The reality is we're not there yet. Look closely at the above infographic. You might find this source post from September 2016 of interest. And here's an interesting post on CCBC on how books are counted.

WNDB_Button.pngWhat can I as a white writer do? Deliberately support those writers who write diverse books by blogging about those books, buying them, sharing about them, etc. And support diversity organizations. I just came across this list: 2016 LINKY (Diversity Children's Books Reviews). It can be a source for me to find books. Plus, I can let people know about it through twitter, etc. And, of course there's the We Need Diverse Books organization. This site has links to awards for specific types of diverse books. Again, it's another source to find books that I can share. SCBWI has a page on their site that focuses on diversity, plus has two diversity grants. Several of these diversity sites want you to notify them if you know of books, awards, etc. not on their lists. That's something any of us can do.

FYI, Multicultural Children's Book Day is coming up on January 27th. You can download a free kindness kit here.
MCBD 2017.jpg

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

image courtesy of veggiegretz on morguefile.com
file7101255704495.jpg
Stuck on your current WIP? Here are some things I do, plus exercises I've learned from other people.

If I'm not feeling my character for the current scene, I go back some pages and reread what I've already written to get the feel of his or her life.

I'm not an outliner, but I know my main character's problem well and have an idea of how the problem might be solved. The stories don't always end how I think they will--I believe that is true for outliners, too. In one work in progress...the kid thinks he is responsible for his mother's death. At the end, he will realize he was not in control of whether she lived or died. He also will resolve (in his heart) the issue of having disappointed her the day she died. I don't know exactly how it is all going to happen, but I keep putting him in situations where he has to face what he's done, face his grief, his regrets.

Talk to your character. In a workshop at Oregon's SCBWI conference in 2013, Agent Trish Lawrence (EMLA) shared about "nailing your teen in the corner" and finding out what's going on under the surface. Ask questions on paper and record her answers. Ask "why" questions. Go to the dark places. Try to discover core truths and inner values.

Do research about your setting or your character's hobby or interests, or problem. In a talk at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference, author Elizabeth Wein said that uncovering details often provides inspiration. Read her guest post on Authority and Authenticity. Author/illustrator Judy Schachner shared something similar at the 2014 LA conference when she showed us how she uses a journal/scrapbook to paste in pictures and quotes and ideas for her picture book character. As an illustrator as well as a writer, she also draws sketches of her character and tries things out with him.

Go some place different (anywhere, e.g. a doctor's office, a park, a store, a restaurant) and soak in the environs, then put your main character there and just start writing about him or her being there. Ask yourself, "What would he be thinking?" etc. Don't worry about your plot, etc. Just see what comes out. Several of us got things that may go into WIPs out of this exercise from a talk by author Elizabeth C. Bunce at a Kansas SCBWI workshop.

Work on another project and let this one simmer until it is bubbling to come out of you... Since I usually have a number of projects I want to work on, this works well for me.

Keep showing up to write. "Good ideas come when we show up," author Kate Messner said.* Kate has more writing tips on her blog.

Check for action in your story, especially if a middle grade novel. Editor Nancy Siscoe (Knopf) said, "Action is always better than inaction."* She added that nothing is worse than characters who never do anything.

Be courageous. Keep trying new things. While speaking on courage to write great picture books, Editor Jeannette Larson* reminded us to "do things that might scare you" and to be flexible.

At the fall 2013 SCBWI Oregon retreat, Deb Lund challenged us to "Mine Your Memories"--especially those yucky ones! What hurt you? What scared you? What secrets did you have?

Sometimes writing the next scene just doesn't seem possible. Write a later scene in the story and worry about how to connect them later.

Maybe you're worried too much about length. Don't worry about how long or short it is; just work on what happens next.

Ask yourself questions about your main character's problem. What's stopping him from reaching his goal? Or arriving at a solution? How can you make it worse before it gets better? How can you raise the stakes? Will she get what she wants? Once at a writer's event, I heard someone say "push the main character off the cliff and see what she does." ;-)

What do YOU do when you are stuck?


*at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference



Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

photo courtesy of ardelfin on morguefile.com
sleeping lion.jpg Not in the mood to write? No inspiration from the muse? Don't just give up, write anyway!

I love this quote from Peter De Vries, " I write when I'm inspired. I see to it I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning." And look at this comment, "In order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it." -Julia Cameron. That all means showing up! Or as Jane Yolen says, "BIC: butt in chair."

That's also the reasoning behind NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). When a friend of mine completed this for the first time, she was so encouraged by reaching 25,000 words, then 50,000 words. She talked about writing "through." Write through the rough spots; write knowing you are writing badly; keep going. She learned so much about her characters and how she wanted her story to play out. She also learned about herself.

Recently, another writing friend and I were discussing how writing creates writing. The more you sit (or stand) and write, the more motivated we get to write. We get excited as we see what our characters are doing. We get inspired by the completion of a scene, a well said paragraph, word count going up, etc.

For me, sometimes I make myself "get in the mood," by rereading what I've written in the WIP novel. That might be the last three chapters or just a scene, but it helps me get into the flow again and remember what is at stake for my character.

I also find it helpful when I take a chapter to my critique group and they ask, "What happened here?"--referring to the between the scenes I wrote or when I glossed over something with a simple line. They awaken my muse in that moment.

The muse is like sunshine--it's so easy to write then. But we all experience rainy seasons too--times when the muse can't be found. This is where we find out if we are a real writer.

Julie A. Campbell also says, "The beauty hidden inside a tiny seed can never be discovered until it is planted, until the rains fall and the sun shines down upon it. The process takes time and patience..."

So how do YOU move forward if your muse is asleep?

I'm a Work-in-Progress

handicapped-parking.png
My life has been crazy recently. We bought a new house, painted almost every room, did other repairs, packed, moved out of the rental and into the new house, cleaned the rental, and unpacked. (Not that we're done!) A new house always requires some "editing." That's not in the right place; that doesn't fit well. Sometimes it needs additions: a shelf here, some hooks there. Other items are removed. There are adjustments. It's a Work-in-Progress with still more unpacking, fixing and painting to do.

My writing, of course, is affected by my life. When things get so busy, less writing gets done. Current projects get put on hold. Blogging definitely goes by the wayside. Unfortunately, I get out of the habit of writing. But not like many other habits--flossing my teeth--when things in my life quiet down, something in me starts bugging me: "Write. Write something. What about the work-in-progress? What's that character going to do next? Write something for your blog. Recommend another good book. Write!" And I'm thankful for those nudges.

However, there are benefits to being away from my writing for a while. I get filled up with new experiences. Some experiences I'd rather not have, I'll admit. My most recent one was a broken ankle requiring surgery. It's too soon to know whether that will directly go into a book or story, but I have learned some things that will definitely affect my outlook and my life and, I'm sure at some point, my writing.

I've learned that handicapped access is not always so accessible. Have you ever thought there were "too many" handicapped parking spaces in a parking lot? I have. But not anymore. I haven't been able to walk for 3 weeks now and have another 3 and a half before there's a possibility to walk. I've been fortunate to have a knee walker to use, which is way better than crutches, but it is still exhausting. I have a temporary parking permit to use handicapped spots. I don't go out much, but I'm finding handicapped spots aren't always where they are needed. Or they are filled. And when we do go out and get a parking spot, those little wheels on the knee walker jar or stick at every bump and crack in the asphalt or pavement. Going up a ramp is work. Going down a ramp is scary. (What if I get going too fast and lose control and fall?!) My handicap will be over soon. But many people don't get a "you'll be free of it" time. I hope when I'm back on my two feet, I'll be more empathetic.

I've been on the receiving end of stares. I'm old enough it doesn't really bother me, but I know some people it would. Borrowing a mall wheelchair to do some Christmas shopping, my husband was pushing me through an area and a woman told her little kids, "Don't stare." If she hadn't been whipping by so fast, I would have liked to explain to the kids why I was in a wheelchair. Not for me, but for them and their understanding. I hope she explained more later.

But here again is where writing comes in. I want my words to do more than entertain. I want them to be useful in some way. Maybe readers through my characters' experiences will learn something new, or learn empathy, or be encouraged because others have had similar experiences. And I've just had more experiences to throw into my personal resource file.

So, all that said, I can't complain about a crazy life. Well, I shouldn't complain.

But didn't I say I was a "Work-in-Progress?"

How Do You Choose?

Diverse Books

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

I'm a Work-in-Progress

Inspiration from Kate DiCamillo