writing ideas

Are You An Idea Generating Machine?

Idea-funny-electricity-124522-lAre you an idea generating machine? Ha! Me either.  But if you're a writer, you better be.  I don't think I am by nature.  But I have trained myself to be better at it–and you can too.

Generating ideas is on my mind because  I'm writing synopses for my next two books.  (And by the way, yes I did deliver the rewrite on Friday!) I have the basic idea for each of them, but there's a lot to figure out in a novel.

(Let me pause right here and admit that I'm a plotter, not a pantser.  I like to have at least a loose idea of where the story is going.  This is serving me in good stead now that I'm writing synopses.)

But this whole thing of figuring out the plot of the novel–to say nothing of the characters and setting–can be a bit overwhelming.  Contrary to the belief of non-writers, one does not just sit down and write out a plot that will work.  

So what does one do?  I have learned to come at it from a lot of different angles.  I have to, because that's how ideas form for me.  So maybe some of these angles will be helpful for you.

1.  Write about it. I know. Duh. But I think sometimes we tend to sit at our desks and stare at the monitor–or out the window, hoping the words will form themselves.  Ha!  A nice free writing session can be infinitely helpful in figuring stuff out.  You can use prompts or just plunge in and write.

2.  Make lists.  this has been very helpful to me.  Some current examples: "What I know about _____ novel."  "What I don't know about ________ novel."  Do the same thing for characters, and setting.  Once, long ago, I wrote a mystery (not a great idea, as I don't generally read a lot of mysteries).  One of my lists was "Burning Questions to Answer."  And there's always the tried and true, "What if?"

3.  Walk.  I've been walking around the house lately.  I'm healing my hips from some issues and if I go for too long outside, I get pain.  So I'm getting my steps in by walking in short spurts around the house.  And this is very helpful for ideas.  The more I pace, the more ideas I get.  Makes the idea of getting up off my butt much more palatable.

4.  Take a shower.  The idea for my novel The Bonne Chance Bakery came to me, nearly fully formed, in the shower.  And I have smaller ideas all the time when standing under the water.  We just got a new water heater (not by choice, the old one sprang a leak) and so now I have more hot water than I've ever dreamed of.  Best thing ever!  And, I can tell my husband I have to take long hot showers to get ideas.  I haven't actually tried that yet.  Not sure he'll believe me.

5.  Remember that every story comes to you differently.  As mentioned above, I've had the lovely experience with both Emma Jean and the Bonne Chance that they came to me in nearly whole cloth form.  So now I fight the expectation that this will always happen.  Conversely, I have to remind myself that's its okay if the idea doesn't download itself that way.  It will still be a good novel.  (And in truth, I still had to do quite a bit of idea gathering to complete the ones that came to me all at once.  But do I remember that? Of course not.)

6.  Research.  This can spark so many ideas.  But don't get bogged down in it, which is very easy to do.

7.  Journal.  Or do morning pages.  When I'm in the middle of figuring out a novel, I wake up and go right to the journal to do morning pages.  (Okay, I do stop to get coffee and water.)  I start writing about any old thing, but most days, my words morph into thoughts on the current novel.  And there I am, figuring things out and creating ideas!

So that's what I'm up to at the moment.  How do you find your ideas?  Leave a comment!

**Don't forget that I'm teaching a workshop in Nashville this spring!  You can find all the details here.

Photo by ubik2010.

10 Ways to Cultivate Writing Ideas

Light Bulb Man

This is you, with all your ideas aglow in your head.

It's a shiny new year and many of us have worked hard to note goals and dreams for 2014.  No matter what your writing goals, they are all dependent on one thing: a plethora of ideas.  So I thought it might be a good time to look at ways to cultivate them.

Observation. Open thouest eyes and gaze upon the world.  We're too often so wrapped up in ourselves that we don't see what's right in front of us.  As Deepak Chopra once said, "All our misery comes from our own self importance."  I would amend that to say: "Our lack of writing ideas comes from our own self importance."  Quit worrying about yourself and pay attention to what's going on in the world.

Listening.  We all talk too damn much. Open your ears and listen to what's going on around you–that dialogue between the two cowboys in the corner (hey, I live in Oregon, we get us some cowboys, especially on the east side of the state), the dialect your neighbor speaks, the cadence and flow of your minister's sermon or your professor's lecture.

Speculation.  So, because you have your eyes wide open, you notice a man walking down the street wearing a skirt.  (Don't laugh, my neighbor does this all the time.  Really.  I'm not kidding. He runs barefoot, too.  Sometimes while wearing the skirt.) And what you do is speculate: he's wearing the skirt because he wants to be a woman.  He's wearing the skirt because he's mad at his wife and he's trying to embarrass her.  He's wearing the skirt because a friend dared him.  Now we're cooking, huh?  Couldn't any one of these be a story?

Making connections. It's been said (by who, I don't know) that creativity is the combining of two disparate things that might not otherwise go together.  In other words, it's about making connections.  So it stands to reason if you put two odd things together you'll come up with something new.  You know, like Jane Austen and Kitties, or Jane Austen and Zombies, or…oh never mind.

Force the Issue.  Sometimes when you are grasping for an idea, you have to nudge it.  A lot. This is especially true when you need an idea for a WIP.  Like that time when you get into the muddle middle of your novel and you have no idea what happens next.  This is when you force the issue. And the best way to force the issue?  Why, write about it, of course.  And a good way to force the issue in writing is:

Ask What If.  The tried and true writer's question: what if?  Ask that question over and over again and see what happens.  What if my protagonist jumped off that cliff?  But there was no water below as she thought?  And then she survived but she was in the middle of a desert with a broken leg?  And then a lion came?  Well, okay, the last part doesn't make sense, but that doesn't matter–just let your brain rove freely over the what ifs.  You never know what idea might be tweakable for the perfect plot point.

Write Things Down.  I find, over and over again, that ideas comes to me in the middle of the writing process.  I think I don't know where I'm going on the page, but then I write one word and then another.  And before I know it, without even thinking about it, my fingers are flying across the keyboard with idea.  So make yourself start writing, even if you think you can't.  Oh, and also? Please don't forget to write an idea down as soon as you have it.  Don't tell yourself you'll remember.  Because you won't.  Smart phones are great for this, because admit it, you always have yours with you so you can make a note on it.

Steal Things.  But don't plagiarize, please.  When I say to steal things I mean it in the metaphorical sense of the word–as in there's nothing new under the sun anyway, so your take on the two sisters, one of whom is ugly and one gorgeous is going to be different than mine.  Go ahead and steal that idea for your novel, by the way–I dare you to.

Vary Your Routine.  Drive a different route to work or cook a new dish for dinner.  Better yet–go out and try a new restaurant.   Dance the Macarena or sing sad country songs.  Watch a foreign film that makes you feel stupid because you don't get it or try a TV show you've not seen before. Take a hike, visit an art gallery–you get the idea.

Have a Sense of Adventure.  If you head out into the world with the idea that life's an adventure, it will be–and you'll have so many wonderful experiences to write about that you'll never lack for ideas.  I will admit this falls into the age-old dilemma of, do I sit at how and write or go out in the world so I have something to write about?  For me the answer is to find a balance between the two.  Of course, you can have a sense of adventure while sitting at your desk, too.

Those are my ideas about gleaning ideas for your writing.  What are yours?  Please leave a comment.

Photo from PhotoExpress.

Hallmarks of a Good Writing Idea


I've been obsessed playing with Pinterest the last couple of days.   I love this new site where you can create online picture boards, tagging photos from across the web. Not that this should be a surprise–you're on the blog of a woman who offers a free Ebook on creating Vision Boards, after all.

But what interests me about it is why it has captured my attention.  In spare moments I zip over to my Pinterest page and create more boards.  In boring meetings I ponder subjects for new boards I could create.

This is the way I felt last week about my novel.  Yes, just last week. Oh dear, wonderful novel please forgive me for my betrayal!  This new infatuation will fade, as infatuations do, and I'll be back to you, my first and true love soon.  I hope.

This new love of mine begs the question: what is it about an idea that engages us?  What is it about a writing topic that attracts us?  And is it important to choose our subject matter carefully or should we just write about any old idea that comes ambling down the pike?

I happen to have opinions on this subject.  (I know, you're shocked.)  I think the subject you choose is vital.  If you're working on a book-length project, it is doubly vital, because you are going to be working on that project for the long haul, and it is very easy to get bored.  I know this from first-hand experience.  And the three novels I started and abandoned in between the one I'm marketing and the one I'm writing are testament to the boredom factor. 

They also attest to the mysterious state when you're working on something and it just doesn't feel right.  The muse, she is a strange creature and sometimes she feeds you ideas that aren't really meant to be developed.  (Which is why I like keeping an idea book, and jamming thoughts and snippets in it, all together.  Then half-baked ideas mate with other semi-developed thoughts and create full ideas.)  I once heard a writer say that ideas are like trains coming down the track–and if you don't jump on them as they come to you, the moment for that idea has passed you by.  Not sure I agree with that, do you?

As I've been pondering this topic, I've come up with some things that denote a good writing topic.  So herewith, hallmarks of a good writing idea:

  • It makes your heart go pitty-pat and you get an ineffable feeling of happiness and connection when you ponder it. (I say ponder on purpose, because generally this is a feeling that will come over you before or after you write, not necessarily during.)
  • The subject never bores you.  As mentioned above, you're going to be working with this idea for a good, long time, so if you're struggling to stay interested, that's a bad sign.  A very bad sign.
  • The topic is something dear to your heart, something you believe in fervently and really want to share with the world.  Fervor feeds feeling and feeling feeds writing.
  • It just feels right when you're working on it.  I know, I know, this is a bit vague, but I think you know what I mean.
  • You don't have to force yourself to work on it.  I realized this with a novel I attempted to create.  I hated working on it.  I could barely force myself to open the file.  Whereas I could barely keep myself away from the other novels I've written. (Until I got infatuated with Pinterest. Sigh.)

Okay, your turn.

Create as successful, inspired writing life: Run your latest idea through the above points.  Does it fit?  You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by choosing the right idea.  But don't worry, sometimes it takes a few false starts before an idea sticks.

Please comment.  I'd love to hear how you choose writing ideas, and if you have a criteria for which ones to follow through on.   What's the farthest you've ever gotten before abandoning a writing project?


Photo credit: brokenarts.

The Writing Process According to Novelist Gabrielle Kraft



I've been hiding from the world because of my new hair color cleaning my office and going through old files and I found a sheaf of notes from a long-ago writing class that I took.  (It was in 1991, to be exact, because I dated it.)  What happened was that my writing group at the time hired a local mystery writer to teach us the ins and outs of writing novels.  That mystery writer's name was Gabrielle Kraft.*


Kraft taught me the writing process I follow today, with a few adaptations.  She was convinced that every process needed a structure, and if one simply followed that structure, one would end up with a finished project.  This idea appealed to me then, and it appeals to me now.  Here are those steps:

1.  Idea

2.  Synopsis

3.  Rough draft

4.  Rewrite of rough draft

5.  Edit your rewrite

6.  Polish your rewrite

7. Professionalize yourself as a writer

Here's a bit more on each stage.

1. Idea

"Your imagination is a muscle–use it or lost it."  Direct quote from my notes.  Think about ideas all the time.  You'll learn by setting problems and goals for yourself.  You can also glean ideas from pictures (I love to do this in workshops)  Ask, who is this person?  Where did she buy her coat?  What is she doing in this photo?  Who does she love? Remember, what's important is what you do with the idea. 

2. Synopsis

Kraft thought this was vital.  I rarely write one, preferring a loose outline to being boxed in to a synopsis, which I find painful to write.  But I concede there is value to writing a synopsis.  "Accept that is it useful to do it," I have in my notes. Take one month to write it. Many agents and editors ask for them when you're querying them.  (As an alternative or addition to a synopsis, I'd suggest a vision board for your book.)

3. Rough Draft

"Be impractical."  I love this advice!  Kraft further advised us just to get it out on the page, and to be emotional.  Write extra and leave room for slashing. (Contrary to popular opinion, what I see most often in student work is that more needs to be added in rather than cut.  So this is good advice.)

4. Rewriting

To Kraft, this was "chiseling away the extra pages."  Cut away everything that isn't a novel.

5. Editing

One line might well do.

6. Polishing

The ultra-fine tuning.  Be obsessive about it.  Change commas, periods, words.  This is "putting the sparkle on it."

7. Professionalize

Alas, the notes for this step of the structure are lost to the recycling Gods.  But from what I recall, this referred to understanding your chosen profession.  Learn about the publishing world and what it requires of you.  I also fancy that if Kraft were giving this class today, she'd be talking up the need to master social media.

I've followed a variation on this structural theme for every writing project I do ever since I first learned it from Kraft.   I know that in general there are two kinds of writers–the process writers and the perfection writers.  Process writers write a rough draft from start to finish, and follow something similar to what I've outlined here.  Perfection writers insist that every word and sentence is polished before they move on.  Don't know about you, but that sounds like living in the depths of hell to me.

So, what's your take on this?  Do you write a synopsis?  Follow a structure in your writing?  Or, do you have a teacher who influenced you the way Kraft influenced me?

 Create a successful, inspired writing life: Commit to following this process or a similar one (I won't holler if you leave out the synopsis step.)

And don't forget, there's still one more day to enter my Valentine's Day giveaway!

*I've lost touch with Gabrielle, and an internet search brings up only links to Amazon and Abe, which are selling her books second-hand.  I believe she worked in Hollywood before turning to mysteries.  I'd love to find out what she's doing now, if anybody knows of her.

Photo by cogdogblog.