#NaNoWriMo When You Have No Freaking Clue What Happens Next

Hile, wordslingers!

With neither ado nor adon’t, Ima splat you right in the face with a lemon meringue writing advice pie. It’s November, and that means NaNoWriMo, and though I ain’t perticipatin’, I know there’re plenty of you crazy kids out there who might need a little scribbling inspiration as the end of Week One approacheth. So here y’all go:

This Hoopla We Call Writing

Writers are people with ideas. Or so the story goes. Most of us, when we sit down to start writing, don’t seem to have much trouble finding something to write about–after all, if we didn’t have the idea, we wouldn’t have sat down to write in the first place. (This might be what’s called circular logic, but I’m gonna go with it anyway.) (Also, this might not apply to the dreaded monster known as Undergraduate Thesis Paper; but in this case, if the list of ideas grows short, there’s always coffee and foolhardiness.)

Hitting The Wall

But I digress. (Shocking, innit?) We writers are people with ideas…except when we’re not. The initial sit-down-and-start-scribbling-like-mad ideas are not a problem. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve got that covered. But what happens after the first bout of hectic, joyous franticness fizzles out?

Oh yes, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t you dare shy away. Make eye contact with me, kiddos! We’ve all been there: You’re slashing away with your pen at that bountiful pad of lined, yellow paper. You’re hammering away at those keys as if they’re tiny square culprits who drank the last of the milk and stuck the empty carton back in the fridge. Things are flowing, story’s moving, characters are sparkling–and BOOM. Dead end. You smash face-first into a wall, and you’re pummeled by that most horrid of questions: What happens next??? You don’t have a clue, because you. Are out. Of ideas.

Part of the solution to your difficulty is that most horrid of pre-writing exercises, The Outline. But that’s another story and shall be told another time. What we’re concerned with today is ideas, and we’re going to turn to a seasoned pro for advice on where to get them.

Elmore Leonard Gets Ideas…

In “Making It Up as I Go Along” (AARP Magazine [don’t ask], July/August 2009), Elmore Leonard describes some of the ways in which he generates ideas for his stories. Considering his novel-pub cred (Get Shorty, Three-Ten to Yuma, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, among many others), I figure the man probably knows what he’s talking about. So take a look at some of these and see if any of them resonate with you:

…From Photos

Leonard describes how the main character of his novel Out of Sight started life as a photograph of a woman deputy marshal holding a pump-action shotgun.

eleonardAs some of you, my darling readers, already know, I am a very visual person. I can see myself picking up a magazine like National Geographic, thumbing through to an article about some 19th-century adventurer, and feasting my eyes and my creative brain on the sepia-fuzzy image of a hood-eyed man in a weather-beaten hat. Maybe he’s wearing a heel-length overcoat and carrying a pack. BOOM again–but in a good way, this time. Suddenly, I have a character named Mac Finchley, and he just stepped out of the magazine pages and into my dead-end chapter–to do what? Shoot my main character in the leg? Build a fire and cook supper? Juggle spoons? Release two badgers and a wombat? The possibilities are endless, which means the ideas start piling up and the story can roll on, dude.

…From Other Writers

When Leonard needs spare style, he reads Ernest Hemingway every day. When he wants to flavor his prose with humor, he picks up Richard Bissell.

Me, I turn to Stephen King when I have trouble with characterization, and to Tad Williams when I need a refresher on world-building. In my opinion, though, it’s best to use caution when reading other writers specifically for help with your own writing. Especially when you’re reading one of your favorites, it’s easy to adopt that person’s style instead of developing your own. It’s natural to imitate what you love. But if you focus on finding your own voice and remain aware of your literary surroundings, you should be able to glean what you need from other writers without transplanting their entire crop into your own creative field.

…From History

Moonshine and the library gave Leonard the seeds for his novel The Moonshine War.eleonard2 Speaking of war and not-so-shining historical moments, I have long thought that the epic battles described in the Bible’s Old Testament provide great framework for battle descriptions in fantasy stories. And in ancient Roman tradition, a slave whispered “you are only a man” to the great leader as he made his triumphal entry into the city; in my novel Rethana’s Trial, I turned this bit of real-world history into a character’s final test of manhood. Humanity’s past abounds with facts and people and scenes that will spark a fire of what-happens-next in your mind. Grab a history book, open it to a random page, and let what you read be the next challenge your characters face. How does the real-world snippet “translate” to the world of your story? How will your characters handle it? Let them tell you.

…From Real People

Leonard based a fictional judge on a real-life friend in the judicial system.

For my novel Shadows after Midnight, I needed someone to get my main character into a heavy metal concert without a ticket. On the day I wrote that scene, I happened to be texting with my friend Bryan, who listens to the kind of music my MC was hearing. Jokingly, I asked Bryan if I could put him in my book. He said sure–and suddenly, my MC had the knowledgeable insider he needed, complete with a T-shirt bearing the name of Bryan’s favorite heavy metal band. Later on, it turned out that Bryan had information my MC was desperate to get, which moved the MC and other characters halfway across the country.

So look around at your friends and family and see who possesses the traits your characters might need to move your story forward. You know these people–their habits, hang-ups, foibles, and faces. Once you start pondering, I promise you’ll find you know exactly who is going to help your characters take over the world. Of course, you should always ask permission before you assign a real person the role of Evil Overlord, lest you acquire too-intimate experience with a lawsuit for defamation of character.

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So there you have it, sweetlings. A few ways to generate ideas that will poke, nudge, prod, or blast your story forward when you’re stuck. But plenty of other options exist, and I don’t doubt you’ve thought of some while reading this post. The mental block of what-happens-next can seem as intimidating as a 2001 monkey-hysteria space-monolith. But it need not lay you low. Use some of Leonard’s methods to generate some ideas, or follow some of the methods that have worked for you in the past. (Share them in the comments! We all need ’em!) You’ll be skipping gaily around that monolith in no time. Or at least hacking dementedly away at it with a hammer and chisel.

To wrap up, a few particularly enjoyable and helpful quotes from Leonard:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

“Dialogue, in fact, is the element that keeps the story moving. Characters are judged as they appear. Anyone who can’t hold up his or her end of the conversation is liable to be shelved, or maybe shot.” (I, Courtney, heart this one with gusto.)

“A photo of a woman marshal with a shotgun, and a prison break, gave me what I needed to write a love story.”

“After 58 years you’d think writing would get easier. It doesn’t. If you’re lucky, you become harder to please. That’s all right, it’s still a pleasure.”

May we all be able to say that after 58 years. 🙂

Guest Blogger: Writer and Editor Jessie Sanders

Happy new week, my beloved inklings!

Last week, I promised you some more updatingness of the goings-on in my neck of the blogging woods. Or, rather, my neck of the Life-the-Universe-and-Everything Woods. This post kinda sorta falls into the updatingness category, because it concerns a novel that I recently helped edit:

Young Adult novel Into the Flames by Jessie Sanders — who happens to be friend, fellow writer, and my editor.

Into the Flames, Jessie’s first novel, is the intriguing and suspenseful story of Rahab Carmichael, who’s desperate to fit in at her new boarding school. Trouble is, Rahab happens to have some special powers that keep her from fitting in — and send her right into the arms of the other “freaks” at school. Teens will relate to Rahab’s story quite well, as will we adults who remember those “awful” days of being relegated to the “freaks” pile. Superhero powers or no. ; )

To celebrate the new release, I asked Jessie to share with us what sparked (ha ha, sparked, get it?) the idea for Into the Flames and how that idea grew and changed over the years. So, without further ado or adon’t, here’s Jessie:

The world of Grover Cleveland Academy started from something as simple as watching a trailer for the movie Treasure Planet. Yes, the Disney movie based off of Treasure Island only it’s set in space. You see, when I saw the character Jim Hawkins sailing through space on his little hover board, I knew I wanted to write about a character that could fly — for real. Instead of using a futuristic board to soar among the clouds, the character would use her own superpowers to fly, strapping her snowboard onto her boots as she went.

That’s how Jean Elizabeth “Scout” Wren was born. Ten years later, Scout is merely a secondary character in my novel Into the Flames. I never intended it to end up this way.

I can’t really tell you how Rahab came into existence. I just know that by the time I was done writing Born to Fly (Scout’s story), I knew that the next year a new girl would be moving to Grover Cleveland — Rahab Sapphira Carmichael. And I found that I liked her even more than Scout.

Scout was a loud tomboy who would rather play baseball than read a book. Rahab was shoved to the back burner because she was the youngest, and she allowed herself to be forgotten so that no one would notice that she was different. But I wanted people to notice her. I wanted her story to be told. So I told it.

Now just because Rahab came to me complete with swimsuit, goggles, and bangs doesn’t mean that she was perfect from the start. She’s been through some major changes in her development, but at the end of the day, she’s a caring, sensitive girl who just wants to be allowed to do the thing she loves the most — swim. She loves animals and is deathly afraid of fire. She has two older brothers whom she admires but can’t relate to. She’s got a lot of hurt in her past, but now she’s ready for a fresh start at her shiny new boarding school.

I really started working hard on Into the Flames during my creative writing class my senior year of college. What I really wanted was a novel that was driven by characters and just happened to include a fantasy element, not the other way around. When my classmates told me they loved the development of Rahab and her friends, I knew I was on the road to making my dream a reality.

Creating the plot of Into the Flames was hard. I had my cast of rich characters, but what to do with them? Well, knowing Rahab’s fear of fire, I was certain that it had to play into the climactic scene somehow. I also knew that I wanted to include resident bad boy Bracken Carnegie in said climactic scene. For many years, cheesy lines and completely implausible scenarios ran through my head and were subsequently deleted from the bank. Finally, after many cumulative hours of talking to myself, lamenting to others, and scratching through pages of bad dialogue, I hashed something out.

So now, from a small spark of an idea that led all the way to an entire world, I humbly bring to you the first book in the Grover Cleveland Academy series. I hope you enjoy Into the Flames as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Courtney here again. Pick up your Kindle copy of Into the Flames for $2.99 and get to readin’! And don’t forget to tell Jessie how much you enjoyed it. : )

Writer, Screw in the Light Bulb Already!

In last week’s post But What’s the Because?, I pondered writerly reasons for blogging or for sharing other types of writing with the world.

Apparently, ideas have turned all theme-y in my brain — because here I am, blogging about them again. This time, I’m drawing inspiration from Patrick Ross’s terrific post about Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon.

Chabon says that ideas are like bright light bulbs filling room after room. The lights entice him to distraction. His challenge is to figure out which one is worth his time and energy.

My experience with these “light bulbs” is different. Here are some of the thoughts I shared when I commented on Patrick’s post:

For me, getting ideas is like wandering from room to room in a ginormous mansion. Sometimes, there’s a bright light that draws me to a particular room. I go in and follow that one light to wherever it leads me. When I’m finished in that room, I leave it and go on to the next bright light.

Some lights are dimmer than others — so I know not to enter those rooms until later (i.e. I put those ideas aside for the time being).

Sometimes, one of the rooms lacks a light. Illumination might spill from another doorway, just barely touching the threshold of the darkened room. But there’s no light burning in that room, so I know not to enter it…

…unless I’m feeling particularly adventuresome and want to challenge whatever might be lurking in the darkness. ; )

Challenge the darkness? Do I dare?

You better believe I do.

I’ve got all the tools I need in that dark room. The skills I’ve learned and practiced. The passion in being created to create. The love for my craft. The fellow creatives God has blessed my life with.

If there’s potential for the light of idea to dispel the darkness, then it’s worth it to me to stay in that dark room and coax the light into it.

I just have to remember who I am and who I was created to be.

Sometimes, all I have to do is screw in the light bulb.
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How do you relate to Chabon’s light bulb metaphor?

What’s your greatest challenge in following the creative light?

What is the creative darkness you fear most?

When The Salmon Speaks, Do You Listen?

This made sense when I drew it. I swear.

Or: The One That Got Away

Last night, Trish and Becca came over to help me select a few of my paintings to donate to the Consortium’s art fundraiser. Afterward, Becca and I chatted about all things artsy, including noveling and blogging.

As I was replacing paintings on my overloaded art shelves, Becca said, “I almost had this great idea for a new story…but it didn’t quite materialize, and now I can’t remember it.”

I nodded in sympathy, having experienced such non-remembering of ideas more times than I care to not-forget. For a few moments, we discussed the merits of Writing Things Down, and then I remembered something.

“You know,” I said, “I just remembered something. I read somewhere that if we don’t quite remember a story idea, then maybe it wasn’t a valid story idea after all. If it really is The One, it’ll probably pop up again, even if we don’t write it down.”

Story Ideas Eat My Worms

Grandpa used to take us kids fishing every summer when my parents and I congregated with aunts, uncles, and cousins at the grandparental home in Oklahoma. We’d go out to a family friend’s property and fish from this rickety, ancient, sagging wooden bridge (which was okay for the ’80s but probably wouldn’t hold water [ha ha] with any safety standard of today).

Sometimes, we caught a fish, and there was much rejoicing, since Grandpa would be the one to clean it. Most times, though, we’d feel a twitch on our line, yank our fishing pole back, and reel in nothing but a soggy, half-eaten worm who was definitely not having a good day. Those crafty fish knew just how much to nibble without getting themselves in trouble. Which goes to show that a catfish is smarter than a 9-year-old human.

Last night, after Becca went home, I had an absolutely cramazing idea for a blog post.

I didn’t write it down.

This morning, I woke up not to a bright, sparkly new idea — but to a half-eaten, soggy, grumpy worm.

Big Fish Story

No! It really was that big! I promise!

I remember things about that blog post idea. It was gonna be smart, it was gonna be snarky-funny, and it was gonna give you dear inklings some great how-to-do-something info. That unwritten, now much-lamented blog post was going to be one of my best yet. It was gonna be The One.

It got away.

So now, I’m asking myself: Was that really The One? If it were The One, wouldn’t it have stuck around? Since all I ended up with was mangled bait, does that mean the Big One is still lurking out there somewhere?

And that thought leads to the image of me, wading out into the deep and getting half a leg bitten off by something that I wouldn’t have wanted on my line in the first place.

Ideas can be scary. Some of them have sharp teeth and are big enough to swallow you whole. They wait out there where it’s dark and deep, and oh, they move fast. I picture them as deep-sea angler fish the size of a VW Beetle.

Gone Fishin’

So, if you clicked through to that angler fish picture, you’ve now seen one of my greatest fears. Angler fish fascinate me — mostly because I find the sight of them terrifying. (Imagine my surprise and relief when, a few years back, I found out they’re about the size of my hand. Or smaller. No VWs, thank goodness.)

But, in spite of my fear, I still go fishin’. No, I’ve never fished out on the ocean — but even when I’m standing on the bank of a placid Oklahoma lake, my imagination supplies the endlessly deep water and the lurking, fishy creepazoids, thank you very much. Those shiver-your-spine thoughts don’t deter me from fishing…

…but still, let’s just say I’ll never become a noodler. ; )

Gone Writin’

So, what about this write-it-or-lose-it thing? Honestly, I can’t tell ya. I carry my scribblebook with me almost everywhere, and I’m always jotting down something. Are they all viable ideas? No. I’ve stuck a few soggy worms in there. Sometimes, the simple act of writing myself a note tells me that I won’t be looking at this idea again.

But still, I write ’em down, even if they’re nothing but water-logged mush. Because if I don’t write it down, I’ll always remember that flash of fin, that brief flick of a tail, and I’ll always wonder,

Was that The One?

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And you, dear inklings? Do you keep a scribblebook? How faithful are you in recording those half-glimpsed ideas?

Or do you prefer the scribble-on-scraps technique of trapping those elusive ideas?

If you don’t capture an idea, do you choose to believe it wasn’t viable in the first place?