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.

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part IV — 1 More from Darcy Pattison

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In Darcy Pattison’s “Fiction Notes,” she addressed this very topic this week. There are too many other people to list who have also given suggestions. Gee. Sounds like a book idea! Wait. There are probably lots of books concerning how to write when there are others around.

One of Darcy’s suggestions is to use pen and paper. I do this so much — even journaling daily in marble notebooks — that I think about this suggestion about as much as I think about being a woman, i.e., it just is a part of me. So, thank you, Darcy, for rattling my brain a bit.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina struck, I headed south on a mission trip with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). For the first few days, I helped cut trees and drag branches to the roadside for later pickup and became spotty with gnat and mosquito bites. During our shade-and-drink breaks, I’d whip the small notebook and pen from my back jeans pocket, and write furiously until we started up again. Then, during the leaders meeting, the director of the camp asked if anyone had a writer in their group — to work on the website, write down stories, etc. My fearless leader’s hand shot up, indicating that I was the only one in the group of 90-some volunteers there at that time who was “a writer.” One man from NJ who’d worked with me and the trees that week, confessed he wondered why I hid behind tree trunks scribbling all the time.

The next day, I was left alone in the tent camp, except for my gnat and mosquito friends, staring at the computer. The wall-canvases were pulled to the poles so I could look over my lonely territory. I stared at the screen, tried to organize my notebook thoughts, feeling lonely and deserted and wondering how I could stand the pressure of being the lone writer, and what I would write about first, when who wandered into the shade of my tent, but the big honcho in charge of all PDA camps in the area. Interview time!

I had lots to share with him from my scribbles to bring him up to current speed of the camp, and he gave me lots more to write about, dealing with the camp’s short history.

Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my literary heros) always carried pencil and pad with him and scribbled away notes and snatched bits of conversation. Of course, this was pre-notebook (computer) days. But there are many times when technology is unavailable even today. So… keep those notebooks and journals and a couple of pens (in case one runs out of ink on you) handy.

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part III — Some More Solutions

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One very important thing I failed to mention concerning writing when there are others around, was/is personal discipline.

Besides my husband working in the den of our house for much of his work, we have company at our house now — for about 10 days. I’ll have a 3-day break at the end of next week before we get in a different set of company (family — hurrah!) for two weeks. I’ll have company in our house 24-7 for most of this month. It’s a might distracting for the writer.

It’s now 7 days into the month. How much writing have I gotten done so far this month? Confession: very little. Excuse: entertaining guests and traveling to touristy places. However, I have done some writing, and I’ll share the reflections of my experiences.

How to write when there are others around? Unfortunately, I’m not rude enough to shut myself up behind a closed door. Besides, when I do that, I inevitably get distracted by laughter from the next room — which I’m SURE was some great writing fodder story which I’ve lost out on. So…

1) Sneak away for a five-minute writing break. It feels glorious. You may feel sneaky and somewhat guilty, but glorious all the same. I know this. I am a writer. I need to write each and every day. If I end up not writing, I make Oscar the Grouch look as singing-sweet as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

2) When you do get the chance to sneak away, do not — I repeat, DO NOT — spend your glorious writing minutes with checking your email, catching up on FaceBook, LinkedIn, favorite blogs, how far the Gulf Coast tar balls have drifted, etc..

3) Enjoy your company. Relish in visits from family. Love them to pieces. And learn to delegate. (e.g., “Oh, say… how ’bout if you folks clear the table and wash the dishes?” Then go sneak in your cherished writing minutes.)

4) Microize your normal writing goals. (I sure hope I made that word up instead of used some swear word or laser weapon. No time to research it now. Remember? I’ve got company in the next room.) Instead of giving yourself 3 hours to spend in revisions, limit yourself to one chapter a day. Microize your normal writing goals.

5) When company leaves, and there are sheets to wash, floors to mop, toilets to scrub, mountains of laundry to do, etc., don’t forget to work back up to your normal daily writing schedule. W.E.D: Write Every Day.  (Rats! Another made up word.  I sure hope that isn’t some acronym for a porno site. No time to look it up.)

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part II — Some Solutions

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The problem: How to not be distracted when others are around, distracting you from writing.

The solution: I’m really not that vain to say there are solutions, but just hints of what might help you be less distracted. That being said, here are a few things which come to mind or which I’ve heard at writers conferences or in books or networking in general. But first a few general good writing habits:

1) Have the priority-attitude of actual writing time be important to you.

2) Take up the Book-in-a-Week phrases: BIC, HOK, TAM. (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard, Typing Away Madly)

3) If you have difficulty writing a whole novel in one sitting, do as Anne Lamott suggested in her book on writing, BIRD BY BIRD — break the task into smaller units. You don’t need to (nor can you) write a novel in a day, but you can write a page a day.

4) Have a writing space which you only use for writing — no reading, no emails, just plain ole writing.

5) Take breaks. Do mini exercises for your neck, arms, fingers, legs, backside, etc.

On to suggestions to limit or deal with external distractions of other people:

a. If you have young children, tell them when you have your writing cap on (get an actually cap specifically for this purpose), that you can’t be interrupted except in cases of emergency. I used to define “emergency” to my students as fire, blood or vomit, but you may quote your own definitions.

That lovely first suggesting being said, I need to add here that I have always felt that family ALWAYS comes first. The kids are young only once. In my family book, I mostly only wrote when they napped or watched “Sesame Street” or were at school. But by the time they started school, I went back to a paying career with energy sucking emotions which drained any writing enthusiasm. Still, family comes first.

b. Turn off the phone ringer, and refuse to answer your doorbell. Yep: hide and ignore.

c. One writer friend hired a baby sitter twice a week so she could write undistracted by her children.

d. Set a timer for your writing time — even just 15 minutes! This is for both for you and for your family members. Explain you MAY NOT be disturbed until the bell dings. And it’s probably a good idea to keep the timer near you just in case little hands like to play with time.

e. I want to say “shoot the ice cream man,” but I realize that sounds terribly wicked. You see, we have an ice cream truck which is driven S-L-O-W-L-Y through our neighborhood twice a day. Only a couple measures of a familiar child’s tune is played over and over and over again. Also in this category are the industrial strength leaf blowers and professional lawn care people next door. I think for this grouping, a good pair of headphones or ear plugs are in order. I know some people listen to tapes of white noise to filter out the outside distracting noise, but I could just type next to our air conditioner if I wanted that type of noise.

f. Family comes first. When your spouse wanders in and out, and in and out again, remember, family ALWAYS comes first.

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part I — The Problem

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I am not your sit-in-a-cafe-and-write type of person. If I do, I start eavesdropping on conversations, or watch kids wrap their parents around their desires, or figure out why this one lady is sitting all alone at a table with a drink and a laptop but not even looking at her screen. However, I know for some writers, the more noise and people, the better for writing. Not me. I crave quiet.

But besides being distracted in public, what about those distractions at home? Take my on-line critique group… One has five children and spent a month visiting relatives on the way to their new home several states away. One practically runs her boys’ Cub Scout Troop, and is active in school events — even all summer long. One owns her own very active (pun?) drama school — need I say more? One has a daughter who just left for boot camp and a son who is an autistic adult. One has four children she homeschools and a whole bunch of farm animals. My husband works out of our house, on the computer, for half of his work time.

When just six of us writers start listing the distractions caused by home and work life, the pile of excuses start adding up. Okay. Let’s just admit it… every writer has excuses. That’s the problem.

Next post: what are some solutions?

Book-In-A-Week Boost

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I’m attempting to write every day during June — rather like NaNoWriMo. It’s going about the same as my exercise program — more sporadic than consistent, I’m afraid. I only wrote about 5,000 words last week.

HOWEVER, this month I signed up for Book-in-a-Week (http://book-in-a-week.com) to give myself that accountability shot in the arm I sometimes need.

For Book-in-a-Week, you set a goal of the number of pages you plan on writing during the week (usually the first full week of every month; 250 words = 1 page), and each evening you send in your report. 

My goal for this week is 50 pages. This morning I wrote nearly 11 pages. Pretty good, even if I say so myself. (And, no, Susan, I’m not speaking from being on medication. I really did write almost 11 pages.) My secret goal is to double that, only if I say that out loud, then I may just be making myself accountable.

I’ll write like crazy during June, then revise like crazy for the rest of the summer. Exciting stuff, this 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…

“Easy” March Writing Challenge

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There’s still plenty of snow in our yard, but with temps getting up to 50 later this week, I bet it won’t be too long before a lot of it will magically disappear. Because it still looks wintery outside, I’m not distracted by dreaming of gardening quite yet. (“Gardening” — a nasty little good-weather habit which sucks up chunks of my energy and writing time.) I did, however, find three snowdrops on the southern side of our house today where the snow, warmed by our toasty abode, had melted. There is hope for spring. Oh. No! Write quickly.

So here’s the “Easy” March Writing Challenge:

Write at least 3 complete chapters of your WIP, or 5,000 words, by the end of March.

Ready? Get set? GO!

What Are YOUR Writing Rewards?

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To reward my 5 hours of revising and critiquing today, I went outside in the MARVELOUS afternoon sunshine, and built me a 6′ snowman. THEN I put a sign on it, challenging the neighborhood to a Snowperson Contest. (I’ve seen several stoppers & lookers so far — tee-hee.) At the bottom of the sign, I wrote that their snow person had to be seen from the road, so I would be able to tell if anyone did it. So far, mine is the only snowman in our neighborhood. I can hardly wait till the weekend to see if I’ve got any takers.

I did this (made a snowman) for several reasons: I work for rewards; I like making/creating things; I like making things out of snow; the temp was perfect snowball-making snow; I LOVE being outside, especially in the sun; and, the last time I made a snowman (last month, in fact) I pulled a muscle in my arm carrying the middle ball, so just wanted to prove to myself that I could get right back up on the snow horse and ride her without fear.

I did this (Snowperson Challenge) for several reasons: I wanted to send a message to my neighbors that it’s fun to be outside; I really wanted neighborhood kids who would rather video game inside, to take up the challenge and spend some time in the great wintery out-of-doors; I thought it would be way-cool if our neighborhood had snowmen on every other yard; and, doing a neighborhood event/challenge like this makes me feel closer to my neighbors, whether they build snowpeople or not, whether they hibernate or not.

So… what rewards do YOU give yourself for successful writing times?