Time for the second post in this teaching series, based on my curriculum, Releasing the Creative Writer in You.* In case you missed last week, here is the link to Lesson 1.
LESSON # 2: IN THE BEGINNING
Introductory Thoughts, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, And Fun Ideas to Get You Started
QUESTION: Where Do Good Writing Ideas Come From?
Successful Writing Rule # 1: If you are a writer, you’re full of ideas.
Ideas come from a myriad of directions, but two of the most common places – two that you can always depend on – are the following:
A. We have a storehouse of ideas inside us. Sometimes they just need a trigger in order to cause those ideas to “go off” enough to ignite a story. What are the subjects that you care about in the various aspects of your life? What do you feel passionate about? What do you like to discuss with friends or colleagues? What do you argue about most ardently? What makes you happy? What makes you sad?
The answers to all of these personal questions can be the key to a successful writing venture – whether fiction or non-fiction.
Do not accept the position of a “would-be” writer who feels he has to run around and ask other people for ideas because he has none of his own. The very idea that you have no ideas is a deception. So your first rule in fulfilling your writing goals is to recognize that you do, indeed, have ideas of your own, and if they are not rising to the surface, start digging as deeply as necessary until you find them.
B. We can see ideas and themes for writing all around us in life itself. How can we be sure we don’t miss them? Simply make a habit of deliberately allowing your curiosity and your imagination to exist unfettered. When your curiosity is free, and it latches onto something, then let your imagination go to work on that subject.
Author/Editor Micheal Seidman discusses this subject in his book Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published (p. 20., Pomegranate Press, Ltd. ). He believes that often we can find ideas most easily when we are not looking for them. He shares about an army lieutenant who trained Seidman’s unit in the expert use of rifles – particularly regarding sniper fire. Seidman quotes his lieutenant as saying, “Don’t stare directly in front of you; you won’t see anything … or you’ll see things that aren’t there. Either is deadly. What you do, gentlemen, is watch the horizon … use your peripheral vision. That’s how you’ll see the movement you have to be aware of.” Seidman often tells writing students of his own that the advice from his lieutenant can be applied to the writer’s craft as well.
And most writers would agree. Those of us who follow the advice proffered by the lieutenant often find that it is a great help in becoming an expert with our own weapon – the pen.
When you get up every morning, get up as a writer. Intentionally go through your day seeking to learn something you did not know previously – or learn more about a subject you thought you did know. Be open and expectant. Allow yourself to ask questions concerning the things you see people do or the things you hear them say. You will not always be in a position to ask the questions of others. In fact, only rarely will that plan work. But you can search your own conscious and subconscious mind for answers.
Apply the principle to events as well as people. When you find yourself involved in an event, ask yourself how and why things are happening as they are – or what would happen if one aspect of the event were opposite of what is taking place in reality. Once you learn to operate this way on a regular basis, you will be surprised at all the questions you will come up with, as well as some of the answers you receive. And remember, you are not necessarily stuck with the “real” answers. Often they are a great catalyst for a story or a non-fiction piece. But just as often the ideas that your own imagination comes up with in answer to those questions will be just as effective.
And always keep in mind that there are some basic questions that every generation has asked, since the beginning of time – and there are as many different answers as there have been generations. But it’s those questions – the ones that apply to every human being just because he’s a human being – that have a universality about them. And, as a result, those very questions often provide great subject matter for the stories we write.
Author Wally Lamb quoted one of his former writing teachers during an interview for Writer’s Digest recently. His teacher said, “You’re never going to tell an original story. … The world is a very old place and all the stories that matter to people have been told over and over.” (Writer’s Digest, March/April, 2014, p.43). The key to your success, dear writer, is to find a fresh way to tell those same stories. But you must begin by asking the same questions that caused them to be written in previous generations.
A word of caution: Bear in mind that writing a story with a universal theme does not mean that every person who reads your work will like it. He will not. And that is a good thing. If everyone liked everything that every great writer published, the human race would be nothing but a mass of confused, undecided, and uncommitted people. You want to live in a world – and write for a world – that is made up of people who are real individuals. They have ideologies, prejudices, and emotional attachments that differ astronomically. Some of them will find your writing exactly to their taste because it agrees with their ideologies, touches their emotional roots, and satisfies their longings. Those who do not find your work to their liking will like someone else’s work – and that simple fact, dear writers, is what makes the literary world – and the literary market – go round.
Successful Writing Rule # 2: Never throw anything away.
If you write a sentence that records how you feel about one brief conversation, keep it. If you try to write a short story for an assignment, but it just won’t fit into the assignment requirements, don’t wad it up and toss it into the trash. That currently disqualified story may be the root of your finest novel some day. Create a file and keep everything you write that came from your own creativity. In fact, you can also keep quotes from many other writers as well, because they may spark ideas in the future. Remember, of course, that you are not allowed to “borrow” their ideas – just let them spark brand new ideas in you.
Successful Writing Rule # 3: Make frequent use of writing exercises.
Below are some examples of successful writing exercises that generations of writers have found helpful:
A. This first exercise is similar to the process followed in some party games, but it is also a never-fail story starter. Make yourself a collection of 1, 2 or 3-word phrases, single sentences, or longer, specifically detailed single sentences. (If you have opportunity to have someone else create the lists, that will be even more challenging.) Write them in a tablet you do not use frequently, or, better yet, write each one on a separate piece of paper, fold it, and put it in a box or jar, or sandwich bag – whatever your style. When in need of an exercise for your creativity, draw one folded suggestion from the collection and sit down at your computer (or notebook) and begin writing. Write non-stop for a pre-specified time (5-10 minutes). Do not stop to edit or even think for any significant amount of time. This is a time when you are letting the creativity in your subconscious have its way without hindrance. (If, after 10 minutes, you find you’re onto a good thing, just keep writing.)
B. Take an hour or so in a public place: restaurant, mall, grocery store, department store, book store, civic event – any place where you can observe people and listen to conversation. Watch how they act and interact; pay attention to what they show interest in or what they purchase. Listen to them converse. Jot down excerpts of their conversations that grab your attention. One particularly interesting writing exercise involves jotting down the last sentence you hear in an overheard conversation and, for the next five minutes (or tomorrow if necessary), sit quietly and let your imagination pick up at that point and continue the conversation, taking it whatever direction your own muse leads. It’s these times of faithful observation of “real” life that lead to the creation of believable characters who act and speak like “real” people.
One of the major earmarks of poor fiction is the creation of characters who often tend to move and speak as some programmed components of the book. They do what the author needs them to do, but they are not interacting and conversing in ways that real human beings would act and speak without the author’s contrivance. But many an observant author has watched and listened to an individual in a restaurant or public event and discovered the main character of his next successful novel in that person’s “real” behavior and speech. The character so conceived has the potential to grab the reader’s attention – and possibly his heart – and stay with him long after the last page of the book as been turned.
But back to the specific exercise: now take the notes you’ve made during observation and write a character sketch or a flash fiction story about what you’ve observed. Keep it and be on the alert to recognize a place where you can use that material in future work.
C. The third exercise is helpful for writers who are already involved in creating a story but are having trouble with one aspect or one scene. Take the scene you’ve been having trouble with and meditate on it during a long period of quiet and rest. Forget about what you originally intended to do with the scene and set your imagination free with it. It is important to be relaxed in this exercise. Even if you doze off, it is not a problem. Often in those moments between sleeping and waking, ideas rise to the surface of our minds easily because there is less conscious restraint on them at that time. More than once, I’ve wakened in the middle of a brilliant, technicolor action scene playing in my mind – a scene that I doubt I would have imagined with as much quality had I been awake to start with. Let your mind wonder and meander through as many pathways and mazes as it wants during this exercise, and see where your subconscious may take you. You may find that you have a whole new avenue for using the scene in that story – and you just might find that you have an entirely new story altogether.
Deciding on Genre
A. Write what you are hooked on – what you read all the time or think about all the time. Many of you will read various genres, but there are one or two that really spark your interest or give you the greatest pleasure. Focus your own writing in those directions – at least to begin with.
B. Do Not try to write to fit what seems to be selling in the marketplace. Some writers/editors/publisher will tell you the opposite. But when all is said and done – particularly if you are interested in publishing with a mainstream publishing house – what you submit to a publisher today will not see a marketplace bookshelf in less than one full year and sometimes two. Self publishing will get your work out faster in the initial stages, but getting wide-spread distribution may take a lot longer.
As a result you cannot count on the best-selling genre this year to still be the best-selling two years from now, when your book is finally sitting in the bookstore or on the Internet retailer’s site. Some genres, of course (such as romance) are best sellers all the time. However, if you cannot write great stories in those particular genres, then your competition is going to be too stiff. Look for the niche that you and your creative talents fit, and you will have the best chance of capturing your share of the market.
C. Another point to consider: How important is personal satisfaction with your work in your estimate of whether or not you are a success? Do you see yourself as a strong individual – a leader? Or do you see yourself as a good follower – perhaps even a clone? There are possible sales for both kinds of writers, but the personal satisfaction with your work can be significantly lacking if you are a leader at the core of your being, but expend all your time and talent just following the crowd.
Examples of Non-Fiction Genres & Categories
These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.
These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.
How To/Self Help
Examples of Fiction Genres & Categories
Commercial Fiction Category
This genre makes up a large part of the books found on
mainstream mass-market bookstore shelves and Internet sales sites.
Often plot-driven more than character-driven, but can sometimes
cross over into the Literary Fiction Market.
Literary Fiction Category
Often more character-driven than plot-driven and generally
considered a little more “intellectual” than commercial fiction. However, more and
more writers are crossing the barriers between these two categories.
Some of the Most Common Genres From Both Categories
*Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner