Where I Get Story Ideas

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I find bits of story ideas from history, from news, from something I did or heard or saw, and from nightmares or by daydreaming.

I wrote my first historic novel from a fascinating bit of news I heard which happened in 1873. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what it must have been like to have gone through that event and in that setting. So I researched and wrote about it.

I’ve had nightmares and scary visions of the end times lately — of man destroying this world not by nuking it, but by greed, causing gushing oil to ruin the water world we live on. YIKES. Some things are too close to reality for me to write about! I’m very thankful that after 86 days BP finally found a solution which seems to have stopped the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. What the effect of all that oil damage is yet to be seen. (Even more daydreaming fodder.)

Yesterday, my husband and I drove through what we later found out was a thunderstorm watch. But I wasn’t watching. Mostly, I had my eyes closed! Instead of going 75 on the interstate, people who hadn’t pulled over (like my husband and a truck driver or two) were driving 40 mph in the sideways pelting rain, gripping onto the steering wheel which the wind threatened to take control of. Lots of interesting story ideas could come from that experience alone. However, I’ll share here on my writing blog a really fascinating thing I saw for the first time in my life. That is, to me it was fascinating, and therefore writing fodder.

We were heading west. As we came out from under the storm, although it was still raining, we hit sunlight and blue skies. My husband commented, “There’s got to be a rainbow somewhere.” I knew that in order to see a rainbow, you needed two things: sun and rain, and that the sun had to be at your back. Because of our van roof, my vision was very limited. I looked out my side rearview mirror and found my rainbow. It was following us. The rainbow was made in the spray shooting up from our tires turning on the wet road.

There are ideas all around each of us. Storytellers can’t help thinking, reflecting, weaving. It’s half of the fun of being a writer.

Rejection Before Even Submitting

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     A member of my critique group sent me a message two weeks ago about a small press which seemed perfect for one of my completed MG novels. I checked out their website, and agreed. They would indeed be perfect, IF I cut some words. So.. I’ve been snatching moments of company time — company which can be very distracting to a writer — to revise and cut 2,500 words in order to fit within their press specifications.
     Since this small press only does quarterly reviews, I decided to call to find out when their next review was, so I wouldn’t be waiting two and 3/4 months before they even take a look at it. The result: The guy said they are no longer accepting manuscripts because of the economy.
     The down side of this? I’ve got a story without a home  — yet.
     Double down side? A rejection is a rejection, even when I didn’t submit it. I.e., For a few days I’m sinking into W.R.F. — Writer’s Rejection Funk — until I can poof-up some writer’s courage back into me. (And, yes, I made up that acronym, too. Although, it sounds an awfully lot like a wrestling acronym, which may also be appropriate in this business.)
     BUT… The up side of this adventure? It’s actually a stronger story.

To Brand or Not to Brand

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I just read a post on QueryTracker (“Branding: Not Just For Livestock Anymore”) by Sheralyn Pratt, PR Manager at Cedar Fort Publishing and author of the Rhea Jensen series.

Twice I’ve participated in Round Up and Branding Days — one on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with Lakota Sioux, and one on a ranch with descendants of western settlers. Both were quite different in method of round up, in method of branding, and in atmosphere of the day. I remain awed and honored to have participated in both experiences. Oh, and both were with living, breathing livestock in a part of the country where cattle rustling is alive and healthy. So, I’m somewhat familiar with livestock branding.

I’m also familiar with literary branding. For instance, when you think of H.G.Wells, you don’t think “picture book writer.” When you hear the name Stephenie Meyer, you don’t think “algebra textbook author.” When you read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you aren’t settling down for a nice romance. Most authors are, or get, branded. Doyle tried to quit Sherlock, but his fans wouldn’t let him. They demanded more. He complied. Sheralyn’s point in her post was that authors (especially new authors) need to brand themselves — know who their audience is, know which authors will sit next to them on the book shelves in stores, etc.. I understand all this, and I do “get” the reasoning, especially from the business end…

But…

What about C.S. Lewis, Carl Sandburg, or Jane Yolen, to name a few? You may think “children’s fantasy, poems, and children again,” but each author has written so much more in many other areas. I think it would be unfair to brand them.

So…

Why do I resist getting branded?  It is because my author-heros write in varied areas? Is it that I have multiple passions, and therefore don’t want to limit myself?  Or is my resistance to branding simply the rebel in me unfurling my wings? (Note: Of course, I’d write additional stories in a heartbeat, if fans or editor requested… for a while.)

On the other hand, I suppose I would need at least three same-genre books published traditionally in order to qualify for a brand. 

Now quit reading blogs and get back to your own branding… I mean writing!

School Visits and the JOB of being a writer

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A writer friend of mine — Ruth McNally Barshaw — was in my town last week, doing five school visits. Of COURSE, I had to both meet up with her and sit in on one of her school talks. I was not disappointed. I never expected I would be.

Ruth’s story is interesting. She sketched in journals all her life, but it wasn’t until she went to the SCBWI NY conference (sketching the whole way on the train and back), did an agent approach her and tell her about the new genre called graphic novels. Ruth found both her nitch and her dream job, and she’s good at it, too.

My former career was as an elementary teacher. I’ve sat through hundreds of school assemblies or special events. Some were awesome; some were utter flops.  I know what works and what doesn’t. I know how to be flexible and change things mid-stream (although there is always THE PLAN to rely back upon). After seeing Ruth in action last week, I made a startling discovery: I want to have that job. I want to write stories for kids, then travel around from school to school encouraging children to write (and read).

Oh. Wait. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a while now. Ah. It’s all about the confirmation. Someday…

Fat v.s. Overweight and Obese Characters

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Being a writer out of my home leaves both eating and exercising at both the top and the bottom of my list of things to do when I’m not writing. HOWEVER, good news: I’ve lost 5 pounds in the past 2 weeks, and hope to continue on this downhill trend. For the first time in my life, I’m counting calories and am disciplined with my exercise. Yeah, me.

Times are changing.

This week I heard some disturbing news. It has to do with the amusement park ride, “It’s a Small World” in California. Seems the ride kept breaking down. They finally discovered the reason: the average weight of the visitors has… er… grown over the years since it was first built. This general increase in weight by the riders has caused the bottom of the boats to scrape against the machinery moving it along, causing the ride to malfunction. What a sad, sad, sad state of American affairs we live in these days.

I’ve also noticed a change in vocabulary. Doctors aren’t allowed to say “fat” any more, or they can get sued. We are either “healthy, overweight, or obese.”

This week I watched a show from the 1970’s about a military school, and each of the young men looked about the weight of a fifth grader of today.

So what does all this mean? Can we or should we write about children or adults who are… um… abundant in figure? If we don’t write about children or adults who have “more” to them, then are we writing about the real world today? Or should we remain in our fictional dream of thin? Now-a-days, actors and actresses who want to maintain a “healthy” look must go to the gym for 2-4 hours a day. Whatever did we do back then, when we were thin and didn’t go to the gym all those hours?

I hate worrying and wondering about this. But what about the characters in my stories?

Hmmm…

Speaking of Manuscript Rejections…

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Yesterday I received a form rejection letter from an editor. I’d like to say that’s never happened before, but if I tried to actually say that aloud, you couldn’t be able to make out my words through my laughter. Yes, I received a form letter, even down to the signature, which was typed out. Surprise! (Not really.)
 
I realize that editors are extremely busy folk. I know they receive thousands of queries each year, along with dozens of requested manuscripts. I know their time is valuable and their work is never, ever done, and that picking and choosing what to read and what and how to respond to each letter personally is difficult and time-consuming. I understand, because from this writer end, I certainly feel a similar time-crunch.
 
Lately, I’ve gotten to the point that when “Dear Author” letters come, I don’t keep them. I do usually glance over them before tossing them into the trash. Yesterday, after the toss, there was a line in the letter which kept coming back to me. The more I thought about it, the more I chuckled, so I dug it out. After the greeting of “Dear Author,” and thanking me for sending my manuscript — it was actually a query letter — came the line: “I’m sure there was something that appealed to me about your manuscript — perhaps it was a good idea, a strong character, or some lovely prose. However,…” and then came the reject with encouragement to try my story elsewhere. I’m wondering 1) if the query was even read (I know one conference editor admitted that during busy times, she’d tell her assistant to simply open the mail without reading the contents, and put in form reject letters); 2) if there was some good, strong or lovely part to my story (or query) which truly appealed to her, what was stopping her from pursuing working with me to make it better and stronger and lovelier?
 
(I must admit here, mostly I send things to editors or agents I’ve met at conferences, therefore, most of the reject letters I get are indeed personal. Thank you, kind editors and agents.)
 
I suppose honesty is a bad thing at times. I suppose one couldn’t have a form letter reading, “Dear Author, Man, has my life and work been crazy lately. Sorry. Can’t wade through the slush pile. Good luck in finding someone in a better position.  From, An Editor.” Or how about,  “Dear Author, I couldn’t get to your manuscript/ query/ proposal/ questions. Have you ever considered self-publishing?”
 
I’ve thought of composing a “Dear Editor” letter in response to form rejects, but by doing so, I’m afraid I’d be cutting off my arms at the elbows.
 
Enough procrastination by thinking and writing about this. Time to get back to my real writing, and turn my good ideas into great ones, my strong characters into memorable ones, and my lovely prose into… er… gooder stuff.

A Famous Writer

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I was outside watering a few dry plants this evening when a kid rode up onto our lawn heading straight at me, with two runners in tow.

“Ain’t you that famous writer?” the bike rider said.

I laughed lightly. I remembered the 6th grade boy. He was selling candy a couple of months ago to help defray the costs from when his house burned down. I got to talking (back then) to his friend and him about a story I wrote a story about a 6th grade boy whose house burnt down.  Ironic, I thought. Since I wasn’t sure they believed me, I ran back into the house and brought out the manuscript. (Writers sure can get desperate sometimes.) We read together the first paragraph, and their eyes got wide. See? I was telling the truth! My writerly spirit encouraged, I bought some candy bars from him, wondering deep down  if it was really a hoax, but always liking to have friendly contact with neighborhood kids for several reasons. When that incident happened, I didn’t think I’d ever see the kid again. And here he was, riding on my lawn, showing off to his friends the famous writer he knew.

“I’m not famous,” I admitted. “But I do write. And at the moment, the story you just mentioned is out with an editor.” I wasn’t sure if they even knew what an editor did, but didn’t want to confuse them, or sound like a teacher.

“I want to read it,” said the Candy Bar Boy. The other two nodded.

“It takes time,” I told them. “Once the editor accepts the final copy of the story, it normally takes two or three years before it gets published into a book you can read.” This would be going through a traditional publishing house, of course, but again, I didn’t want to flood them with too much information, nor the fact that it could very well be rejected by several editors first.

“I’ll be in 10th grade by then,” said the older boy, counting on his fingers.

Again, I didn’t want to add other publishing housing rejections to the mix, but thinking about rejection slips, my pessimism escaped. “Yeah,” I said. “By then you probably won’t even remember me.”

“Oh, yes, we will,” they all three assured me. Maybe they knew what long waits and being sad was all about.

“We sure are thirsty,” hinted the one runner.

“I’ll get you some water,” I offered my potential future readers.

They quickly chugged down the glasses of water and were off to play basketball while it was still light. As they rode away, I heard the Candy Bar Boy say to his friends, “See? I told you I knew a famous writer!”

Day 24 — NaNoWriMo — Thanksgiving Priorities

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Company’s coming tonight for the next 5 days. I haven’t written anything on my NaNo novel the past two days. Today’s not looking too good, either. I wish I could snap my fingers and house cleaning and  food preparations could be done in an instant. Or maybe I, as a writer, just need to get over caring if I have guests who use mildewy toilets, or if I serve  peanut butter and jelly sandwiches v.s. hors d’oeuvres and turkey and scrumptious pies.

Okay. I’m not really grumbling about family coming in, nor about feasting out. I adore my family, and cherish each moment we get to spend together. Family ALWAYS takes priorities over writing, or anything else for that matter.  And food — well, need I say more? And celebrations are worth looking forward to, participating in, and remembering.

But see? I take a few minutes out between grocery shopping and laundry loads to blog that I don’t have time to write today.  Silly Sandy.

NaNo Novel Decision

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October is supposed to be planning month for NaNoWriMo. Part One of my plan is to decide which novel (story-line/plot) I’m going to be writing out.

When I first decided to take the NaNoWriMo plunge, I was going to rewrite one of my MG fantasy novels (North Wind) during the month. I’ve been struggling with it off and on for a couple months now and thought this would be the nice push to get it completed. 

I also considered rewriting my horrid self-published (PublishAmerica) adult thriller (The Spin Murders). Not that the plot or characters are horrid, but my word by word writing corrections was never put into the draft. My “editor” sent the original ms to be published. Yeesh. So I thought I’d use November to ready that novel for when my 7-year contract runs out.

Decades ago, I wanted to write a novel about my perfect school — what it would be like. (no working title) Years ago, I started the idea for a Native American school, incorporating many of the ideas from my other alternative school idea. (Golden Paints the Sky)

I considered expanding my 3 Tristan fantasy chapters I’d written for my son’s Carlson Photo Writing Challenge into an actual plot and story during NaNo, but all I had were three incidents/scenes, no plot.

Then I thought I ought to just start fresh, like the No Plot, No Problem philosophy of NaNo. I thought of a cool story of a town which disappeared. (based around Silver Lake, MI)

THEN I thought of writing a MG historical novel about dunes taking over a town and a mystery which is buried forever with the town. (East of East, working title) So the past two days I’ve been doing lots of research of different things I’ll need to know. I suppose I can also research it AFTER NaNoWriMo is over, when I do the revisions. Now, with 2.5 weeks to go, I think I’ve settled on this last novel idea. But what great fun it’s been to allow my creative juices to flow in just coming up with ideas and doing research. Writing is awesome.

Raw Writing (i.e., first drafts)

I am an unstructured person. Circle-me cannot fit into the square holes of daily disciplined people. I can read 8 books in one week, then wait a couple or more months before I pick up another. It’s not quite the same with my writing, although I have been known to bing write — like for the many years I was in BIW (Book-in-a-Week). Long ago I heard the question, “So, do you write every day?” I used to answer no, but after giving that answer, wasn’t taken seriously as a writer. So… today if you ask me, do you write every day? I’d have to answer an honest yes.Is that writing always raw writing (i.e., first drafts) or rewrites or revisions? No. This summer I’ve spent more time learning about websiting and the art of blogging than I have in any of those three. In my defence, I am following my summer goals. I finished the revision of one novel and then dove into a study of on-line presence. Having no traditionally published book (YET), I want to be able to have all this awkward learning behind me so I will be able to center in on my real writing.

Today I am craving Raw Writing — getting those ideas, characters, and scenes down for the very first time, allowing my fingers to simply fly over the keyboard, trying to get my thoughts into letters before they fly from me. Vacation time and family visits quench that, this week. I DO NOT REGRET GIVING UP MY WRITING FOR FAMILY — EVER. (Yes, that was me yelling.) Family is always top priority to me. But today I crave sitting down in one spot for 2-3 hours and doing some uninterrupted raw writing. It won’t happen. Not today. But I can wait.