Idea Worry

Happy New Year!

I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.

On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.

Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.

Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.

This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.

The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.

But I want to keep writing.

The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.

Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.

I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.

We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?

Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).

For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.

(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)

I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.

There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.

As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.

Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.

• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:

Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.

Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Challenging Choices

First off, congrats to all of you who are starting the NaNoWriMo home stretch! How has it gone so far? How is it going now? If you like, post your answer in the voice of one of your characters and them paste it in your story, which will be fun for the rest of us. (I don’t want you to lose word count!)

On September 11, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Question for you guys: When you have a lot of story ideas, how do you pick which one to develop?

As with the last post, a lot of discussion ensued.

Jenalyn Barton: Honestly, I pick whichever one excited me the most at the moment. Not the most sustainable approach (and likely the reason I have trouble finishing things), but it works for me.

Erica: Either all of them or none of them! Really, it depends on the time of year. I’ve been writing short stories to give my family as presents for a while now, so I often consider who would like what story. You might try something similar. (Also makes sure that I don’t just forget about it.)

future_famous_author: My friends, who read my stories, but have trouble keeping up, get really mad at me for starting a story and stopping only a couple pages in. I start a new story almost every day now. It’s a problem. I think that if you can find a story that you actually enjoy writing, then just force yourself to stick with it. It’s not everyday you find an idea that really holds your interest, and so you have to stick with them. It can be hard, and my brother and I have had many arguments about which is harder, basketball or writing, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s fun. I really struggle with this, too, and have yet to finish a novel in my six years of writing.

Writing Ballerina: I like the idea of giving them as presents! Thank you! Tell your brother that writing’s definitely harder.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. My best advice would be to write everything down as soon as possible. Usually, what happens to me is that I’ll get an idea, think about it for a day, write a paragraph or two, and then start from scratch with another idea the next day. I think it’s because I don’t develop my ideas, so I don’t get really invested in them. If I had characters, names, faces, and some fragments of a world, it gives me something to focus on and be interested in.

So I’d recommend developing the first idea that comes to mind, and seeing where it takes you. If the idea is “What if people were once dragons?” Then write that down, and branch off from that. Stories are really just multiple ideas combined into one. (Though it’s a lot more complicated than that) So it could be, “What if some humans knew this, and wanted to become dragons again for evil purposes.” Then, it could turn into, “What if the hero had to figure out how to become a dragon first to stop them, but if they became a dragon, they wouldn’t know how to become human again, so they might have to leave their family and X love interest behind, even though their family means everything to them.”

Just stick with it, and try to focus on one thing. Write things down, and don’t be afraid to say: “This isn’t working for me.” and move onto another idea.

It’s also okay to be developing an idea and to write down as many ideas that come during that time. It’s about not letting the ideas float away, and really making them more than just a sentence or two. Ideas are, in a lot of cases, a dime a dozen. And if one doesn’t work (after you develop it, of course) then it’s okay to move on. Besides, if you at least write things down, you can come back to them later.

future_famous_author: A lot of times I end up writing down a page or two of a story and then starting a different one. I wish I would do that and then go back to the one I had before that. But, then, it’s better than having no ideas.

I love, love, love Kit Kat Kitty’s “what if people were once dragons” idea, whether or not it ever becomes a story. It’s so much fun to contemplate what that might have been like, the literal fire in the belly, the joy in flaming. And flying! The pleasure in terrifying other creatures who aren’t dragons.

And fun is wonderful. If it’s fun to try out lots of ideas, then that’s a fine thing to do. Relaxing and waiting for the one that will sustain us is okay. I think that one will come.

Early twentieth century novelist Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If I were to try basketball, it would have to be in the under-five-feet-tall league, so I can’t compare the two, but for me (and for many but I don’t think all) writing a novel is super hard. I don’t know why that is–we know how to form words and sentences, and we know hundreds of good stories, and we understand story shape, but yowser!

So we can take comfort in the absolute fact that we’re rising to a challenge when we write.

As you know, I’ve recently started my next novel, which is based on Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra, the Trojan War, and the fall of Troy, plus the warlike Amazons who come to Troy’s aid. Before I started, I went through a process of considering which of my ideas to work on. Here’s what happened, which may help with your own process, too:

I’d like to write more books about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and I continue to read on the subject, but I haven’t yet found the right story thread.

The fairy tale “Aladdin” has interested me for years, and I wrote pages of notes about how I might approach it, but what stymied me is that Aladdin and the princess are married for most of the tale, which I think lessens the story’s appeal for young readers. I hope to figure out how to deal with that, but so far I haven’t. Maybe Disney has solved this, but I stay away from Disney movies because I don’t want their solutions to get into my consciousness and make me, unintentionally, use something of theirs.

The myth “Cupid and Psyche” and the related fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fascinate and irritate me, which is usually a combination that gets me writing, but in this case, I’m stuck. In both, the heroine is made to think the owner of the castle is a monster, and her sisters and mother are made to appear jealous when they warn her against him. One source of irritation is because I think the sisters and mother are probably genuinely alarmed for her. They have every reason to believe she’s in danger, and they’ve gotten a bum rap for centuries!

The other source comes from the hero, and this is the one that has me stumped. The hero, who’s either in monster shape or is pretending to be a monster, is deliberately causing the girl he loves to be frightened, to make a choice for the sake of her family that she wouldn’t make otherwise, and even to see them let her make it. In my opinion, this guy is seriously flawed, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to forgive him and make him likable.

What I love about these stories is the wind that our heroine flies on, and the love story aspect.

As for, Cassandra and Troy, I hope I’ve thought of ways to work out the kinks, but I’m worried that I’ve chosen wrong. The fall of Troy and all that happens before it falls is tragic, and I have to thread my story through the misery.

The point of all this is that, even as a pantser, I think a lot about what I’m going to write before I jump in. I always fail to catch everything, but I try to anticipate the problems that will pop up along the way. So that’s the first strategy: even if we don’t outline, we think deeply about our story before we jump in–which may be hard. If you’re like me, you enjoy the writing, and planning is as unpleasant as standing on a mile-long line at the supermarket.

I wrote up to here on the train to New York City, and while I was walking in Central Park, this post walked with me, and I came up with the steps that I seem to follow from idea to story.

First, boing! the idea. Excitement about the idea, and turning it over and upside down and inside out in my mind. This is the necessary first step. The others can arrange themselves in whatever order works best for you.

Second, notes in the what-if stage that Kit Kat Kitty describes. More boing! moments as we discover what delights us and where our story might go.

Third, notes about characters who can carry our story, who will take it in the direction we want it to go. Like, with the dragon idea, would we want an arsonist as an MC? Maybe, maybe not. Do we want someone who’s afraid of heights? Afraid of getting angry? Angry all the time? The answer will depend somewhat on where the story is going.

Four (not everyone needs this one, but I do), a tentative ending, which involves knowing what the major story problem is and how it might be resolved, happily or not.

Last, notes about where to start.


Going through these steps, I think, will get us to a story we can stick with, at least for a while.

After that comes patience, the virtue writers need most. Do basketball players need patience? Just wondering.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Let’s suppose the humans in a story used to be fairies, but somehow their wands were taken from them, and they need them again, or the MC does. Try the steps above and begin the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Find a fairy tale or myth that both fascinates and annoys you. Follow the steps. If the first fairy tale turns out not to be story material, try another one. Keep going until you find one that leads you on to a beginning. Write the story.

∙ Using Erica’s method, think of a friend or a family member and the kind of story he would like. Follow the steps and write the story.

∙ Think of someone you know–friend, frenemy, or villain–and build your story about aspects of that person. Write the story.

The Idea Garden

Reminder: I’ll be at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival on May 5th. Details here on the website.

On January 31, 2019, Ainsley wrote, I was wondering about story ideas (most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.

Two of you responded expansively.

Jenalyn Barton: Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:

4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs’”
5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”

Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast.” I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devastated when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.

Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.

Melissa Mead: If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)

The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”

TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.

A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”

Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
“I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…

(Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!” I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom.)

So, ideas come in all sorts of ways, and both Jenalyn Barton and Melissa Mead find that serendipity is a big factor. If Jenalyn Barton’s flight had been at a different time, if she didn’t know that particular song, if she hadn’t seen the anime, her story idea wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did. And for Melissa Mead, no First-Line prompt, no Crocodile Hunter, no Iron Chef America–no book about Malak.

But–and this is important–both of them would have produced something else. Because they were receptive, open for ideas.

I’d call that the number one element in idea development: receptivity. Writers always have an eye out for ideas.

Notice that neither one of them judged her ideas. Jenalyn Barton didn’t say to herself, You can’t find a story in clouds– they’re just water vapor. Melissa Mead didn’t think, Snakes are cliche.

Nothing kills what might be a fertile idea deader than negativity.

(And nothing else as effectively makes writing a hard, onerous slog.)

So, element two is no judgment.

The fodder for our ideas is various. Jenalyn Barker mentions landscape, a song, anime. Melissa Mead talks about a prompt, like The First Line provides, and TV shows.

In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, an excellent source of prompts is THIS BLOG–as well as my books, Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. And I’ll repeat, because uncertainty about this crops up fairly often: You are free to use my prompts, the ones you find here or in my books. They’re meant to be used. You won’t be infringing on my copyright.

I tend to go to fairy tales, myths, and history for ideas. The inspiration for my novel Ever came from the story of Jephtha and his daughter in the Bible. I turn these sources over and over in my mind and squeeze them and poke and prod–sometimes for years–until something I can use takes shape.

Even then, the whole story never comes to me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. I get glimmers, on the basis of which I brainstorm, write notes, make lists. Eventually, I discover a character or two and a sense of the end of my story.

More notes and lists and a beginning comes. I start writing.

Naturally, I need many more ideas to get through a first draft, so I write notes and lists again. If a story is giving me trouble, my notes may be longer than the story itself. No matter what point I’ve reached, I still have to be receptive and nonjudgmental.

Notice how we describe getting ideas: we get them; they come to us; we have a eureka moment–as if the air is full of invisible ideas, the size of midges, and they fly in if we leave even a chink open–if we’re receptive.

This is how it feels. Ideas arrive. I don’t think it’s a deliberate process. If we’re receptive, our subconscious sends ideas. That’s why it feels so delightful. One moment we have nothing, and the next, something. We seem to have done nothing.

There are things, though, that we can do to prime the pump. An activity that doesn’t call for words or much thought, like walking or peeling potatoes, can free our minds. It’s a two-step process. We think obsessively about our project or just our desire for an idea. We may feel hopeless because nothing is coming. Then we let it go to take a walk or a shower, and–bingo–an idea shows up. A midge has flown in.

These idea midges are only for us. My midge won’t do much for you. In its DNA is our complete biography. An idea appeals to us because it’s made for us. It works because we went to the circus when we were seven, because we like salmon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, because humid air doesn’t bother us. And so on. We’re the only one who will know what to do with the idea when it shows up.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Melissa Mead has written about a half-demon. Try writing about a half-fairy-half-gnome. Brainstorm about what such a creature would be like, what it might want more than anything else, what would be challenging for him or her. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Write or type “Once upon a time” at the top of a sheet of paper or screen. Write ten things that might follow. Take a walk. Write ten more.

∙ Think about the most complicated person you know. Put your feelings about this person to the side and think of circumstances that would be difficult for her. Imagine a time period that she could fit into. Write a scene for her in those circumstances and time period.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On June 4, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’m desperate! How do you come up with new book ideas?

I accidentally killed my computer four weeks ago and lost all of my files…and hadn’t backed them up for the past two years (yes, I know, you’re supposed to back your computer up way more often than that, but I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I never got around to it). I lost everything I’ve written for the past two years, which includes two novels I had halfway finished and the two previous novels that I was working on revising. I can’t stand the thought of starting over on that stuff, at least not for a good long while, but I’m dying to start writing again.

I’m trying to think of a fresh new idea to move onto, but coming up with an idea that I can really get into is proving impossible. I have dozens and dozens of story ideas that I’ve come up with over time, but only a few have piqued my interest in just the right ways to get me obsessed enough with them to write them (that’s pretty much the only way I can write something – if it intrigues me in just the right way that I can’t stop thinking about it and I crave a chances to sit down and write more of it!).

Right now I have one idea that has really sparked my interest, but, alas, it is a fanfiction, spawned off a backstory that an author never wrote; I love it, but I can’t stand writing fanfiction and I can’t figure out a way to convert it into something original – I’m afraid it wouldn’t work in any other world.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone has any ideas for how to come up with…ideas?

HeroLass wrote back, One of the ways I come up with ideas is to go for a walk, nature inspires me and when I walk I let my mind wander.

Another way is to look at everyday objects and go what if…? (‘What if’ solves many of my lack of idea problems.)

And Melissa Mead wrote, Can you tease out the core of what you love about the fanfiction, change everything else, and write that?

There is actually a book called What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (high school and up, I think), which is a great resource for idea generation. So that’s one source we can all turn to.

I am backed up in multiple ways, and, except for my little memory chip, all of them are managed by my techie husband. If not for him, I’m sure I would be or would have been in Writeforfun’s boat more than once. I’m very sorry this happened to you!

I’m with HeroLass on the usefulness of activities that let our minds wander. Walks, showers, repetitive and mindless activities can be potent sources of ideas. In my experience these work best if they’re preceded by intense though unsuccessful brain cudgeling. After that kind of effort–which may include free-writing, list-making, talking obsessively about the problem with anyone who will listen–the subconscious is primed and, when allowed to roam free, will produce results. This works for major ideas for entire projects and for smaller ones when we get stuck in our WIP.

When I’m on an idea hunt, I often think about the problem just before I go to sleep, and–sometimes–I wake up with the answer. This is another form of the relaxation technique above. It presupposes, as I believe, that our brains really do have answers. The difficulty is finding opening the lock. Sleep is often the key.

It can be useful to keep a pad by the bed and write down our dreams, which otherwise are likely to slip away. Dreams are surreal and unexpected. We can mull them over, write notes about them and lists about where we might take them.

I agree with Melissa Mead about changing the fanfic enough to make it entirely your own. Lists may come in handy here. We can list the elements of the world that seem unique, that we can’t do without–and then list ways we can do without them. We can list the elements of our idea that we love and then list ways to use them in a new, non-derivative story.

One of my chief worries in the year that preceded the publication of Ella Enchanted was that everyone would notice how derivative the book was, how I had stuffed it with all the elements of what I loved about many of the books I’d read. No one ever made that accusation. We may not be copying someone else even when we think we are.

We can list our obsessions. What do we care about? What has been an interest through our entire life? For each item on our list, we can start a new list of ways to use that interest in a story. For example, suppose we’re fascinated by trees. What can we do with that? Dryads? The secret lives of roots?

I’m finally writing about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a subject I’ve been curious about for years. I keep finding books (unread until now) about the subject on my bookshelves. My subconscious was preparing me. I bet yours is, too.

As most of you know, fairy tales are a major source of inspiration for me, but not all of them open to me quickly. There are several on the back burner that I hope to get to eventually: “Rumpelstiltskin,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Aladdin,” to name a few. When I think of something that may, finally, allow me to move into actual writing, I type it into my ideas page for that story.

And I keep a running list of ideas that I may be able to work with in the future. I’ll probably never get to many of them, because new ones continue to come along, but when I’m preparing to start a new project I always go back to my list. I’d encourage everyone to keep such a list, and, if we’re in danger of losing it in a computer disaster, print it out periodically or keep it longhand in a notebook.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a book you’ve loved that was published in the last few years, definitely still copy protected, and use it as the basis for a list of ideas you can spin off to make your own original story. Pick one and start writing.

∙ The following is one of my dreams, which I put in a poem. I offer it to you to change any way you like if it seems to have story possibilities: I knew that if I ate the shrimp I would turn transparent. I didn’t serve myself any, but they were on my plate anyway. That’s all I remembered when I woke up. Do I eat the shrimp? Who wants me to be transparent? Is being transparent the same as being invisible?

∙ The genies in Aladdin interest me. How do they grant wishes? Where does their power come from? What’s their relationship with the evil magician? Write a list of genie story possibilities. If one grabs you, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On September 23, 2016, Grace (The Girl Upstairs) wrote, How do you develop your writing ideas? When you first get an idea, what do you do first? I really struggle with what to do when I first get an idea.

It’s uncanny how often the next-up blog question touches on what’s going on in my work at the moment.

The manuscript for Ogre Enchanted is in my editor’s hands. She emailed me about a week ago that she was reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t know if she’d read three pages or fifty and I haven’t heard since. My fingernails are very short, and my fingers themselves are in danger.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about what to do next, often the hardest part for me. So here is my process as I’m now living it.

The book that comes out in May, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, resolves its main problem but leaves a kingdom in disarray. In my next effort I’d like to deal with that, with reconciliation. Since I’m bad at making up plots out of nothing, I looked for historical models.

On a personal level, we reconcile all the time. The people we love most are often the ones who push our buttons hardest, but we find a way to work it out. For most of us, life isn’t littered with failed relationships.

But on a macro level, which is what I want, I’m coming up empty with examples of reconciliations between groups. I looked at the aftermath of our Civil War, but we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that struggle. I read about Scotland, where, if I have it right, the Lowlands became reconciled to England for economic reasons, but the Highlands were brought in only by military defeat. I read about South Africa, and there it seems that outside pressure brought about change, which I don’t want to use. Ancient Rome grew by conquest, though its practice of readily granting citizenship is interesting and possibly useful for my purposes. To decide whether or not I can use these, I write notes.

If any of you can cite a historical example of reconciliation, please weigh in.

When I’m hunting ideas I don’t always look to history, but I do look around for outside sources of assistance. And my usual go-to’s are myths and fairy tales. I read Lang’s Red Fairy Book, which I never had delved into before. (Lang’s color-titled fairy tale collections are great, because they’re in the public domain, so we can use them without worry. And there are so many books! A feast!)

I didn’t find anything there for this purpose, although a couple of stories jumped out as marvelous. I recommend “The Nettle Spinner,” which doesn’t repeat the formula of any other fairy tale I know. And there was a terribly sad one called “The Voice of Death” about a doomed search for eternal life.

Though not in the Red Fairy Book, I found myself thinking again about both the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which seem to me to be in essence the same story, but I don’t know if I can mold either of them into the shape of a tale of reconciliation. Maybe I can. I’ve written lots of notes.

Another myth keeps coming to mind is the tragic “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which I may be able to use, minus the tragedy. In case you don’t know it, here are the bare bones of the story: Orpheus is a master musician. On their wedding day, his wife Eurydice is bitten by a viper and dies. Orpheus, grief-struck, goes to the underworld to play for Hades and persuade him to restore Eurydice. Hades, moved by the music, agrees that Orpheus can lead her up to the land of life so long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both fully out. However, he can’t resist a glance right at the end and loses her forever. The reconciliation that I’m writing notes about here is between the underworld and the world above, which can be any two opposing camps.

What I like about this story is its simplicity, the most important quality I look for when I pick a fairy tale to embroider around. My writing impulse is always to pile on complications. If I start with something straightforward, I have a chance of not losing my way.

(I’ve already used the myth of Orpheus in a poem, in a way that’s entirely different from the approach I’d use in a novel. For the poem, I researched the effects of a viper bite, which are horrifying. I imagined that Eurydice doesn’t want to return to life only to have to die again eventually, possibly by another viper, but Orpheus won’t listen to her, so she sets him up to look back.)

Let’s assume that I pick “Orpheus and Eurydice” to become a book. My next step is more notes. I’ll ask myself whether I’ll write in first person or third, and, if in first, who my POV character will be. If third, omniscient or close focus? I’ll wonder who my MC’s will be, what the events of the story will be.

I’ve been evolving from a pure pantser to a vague outliner, so I’ll start listing plot points and, most important for me, how the story might end. I won’t start writing until I have an end point in mind, though I may not know exactly what the outcome will be–whether it will be happy or sad.

My notes, even at this early point, will be scattered with lists–they are already, about how I might use this fairy tale or that myth, about the state of my world at the beginning of my story.

When I have a very basic outline, maybe a page, and I’m satisfied with it, I’ll think about an opening scene that will introduce my MC and may set up the events that will follow. When the scene takes shape I will be unable to resist writing. And I’m off.

You? How do you get started?

Depending on how you count, here are five prompts:

∙ Try my method. Read or reread ten fairy, folk, or tall tales. Jot down a few notes on the three that interest you most. List ways the stories might go, considering gaps in logic or failures in understanding about the way real people feel and behave–these cracks are spots you can exploit to make a fresh story. Write notes about the characters that are given to you by the story and how you might flesh them out. In your notes, consider who your MC’s may be, because they may not be obvious. For example, you may decide that the hunter in “Snow White” interests you most. Another factor that I haven’t mentioned is time period. Do you want this to be fairy-tale time or an actual historical period or contemporary or future. Explore the possibilities in notes. Write more notes about which point of view to use, first person or third (or even second), what tense. List possible plot developments. Create a short outline. Write notes about where to begin. Finally, write the first scene.

∙ There are several distinct chapters in the myth of Atalanta. These prompts are based on her story. Try out my idea-development method on one or more.

∙ Atalanta’s father wants a son. When he’s presented with a daughter, he dumps her on a mountainside to die of exposure, but she’s adopted and raised by a she-bear until hunters take her in.

∙ There are depictions on ancient Greek vases of Atalanta overcoming Peleus (Achilles’ father and a hero in his own right) in a wrestling match. That’s all there is, as far as I know, so this is a challenge, to build a story out of that image.

∙ This part of her story is the best known, I think. Atalanta’s father finally accepts her and wants her to get married. She’s not interested, so she says she’ll marry only the man who can outrun her in a footrace. She’s victorious time after time until a suitor, Hippomenes, asks Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gives him three golden apples to throw in front of Atalanta, one at a time, to slow her down. He wins; they marry.

∙ Use Atalanta’s story or any other myth or a fairy tale as the basis of a poem–there is a long tradition of doing this. For those of you who are at least high-school age, you might check out some of Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea overload

Before I start the post, I want to let you know I’m going to be at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival on March 16th. Details here: I hope some of you can make it. If you come, please let me know that you read about the event on the blog. I’ll be delighted to meet you!

This is a continuation of questions from Ellie Mayerhofer that were the subject of last week’s post: Is it possible to be working on too many stories? I am working on several though there are two that I am mostly focused on (four that I am really trying to work with-there are some others but those four are what I usually work on, but there are two that I work on more than the other two). But then sometimes one of the stories I haven’t worked on in a while will pop a new idea and then there are more that I am working on. Or I will suddenly get a new idea and then leave off the others. I want to really focus on and finish some of my stories… Should I put some stories to the side and only focus on one or two? What happens if I do put everything but one or two to the side and then get another idea? Do I keep working on those, or do I work on my new idea and put off the others?

Idea overload comes up often on the blog. If I advise you to put new ideas on hold until you finish the work-in-progress, the WIP, you may not be able to. The new idea is an itch that desperately wants to be scratched.

Still, the WIP won’t ever be finished if you aren’t faithful to it. Your desire to bring a story to completion wars with the new idea. In this state, you’re a battlefield!

What I do when a new idea blasts in is to write it down in the ideas folder in my computer. I write a paragraph or so about the idea and what I might do with it and then go back to my current story, which usually takes the pressure off the itch. I suggest you try that as one strategy.

If you have more ideas than you’ll ever be able to develop and you’d like to annihilate the new one, try telling it to a friend. Explain it all, every single thing you can think of about it, all the characters, every plot point, exactly what you would do if you did write it. Rant about it. Then see what happens. For many writers, talking about a story kills off the desire to write it.

If you’re writing a blog, give any idea you don’t have time for to the world. Explain it and put it out there. If you’re interested, ask your readers to use the idea and show you the results.

It’s also possible that the new idea came along because the story you’re working on has gotten into trouble. What used to be fun and fascinating has turned into work and you’d rather dance off to something fresh.

This is a real choice. Unless you have a contract for a story, you’re not required to soldier on in misery. You can move on, and maybe the new idea will go better than the old one has. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it, too, will mire down and you’ll be gone, chasing another concept. There’s nothing wrong with this. You may need a year or two of story hopping before you figure out how to stay engaged. You’re going to learn about writing no matter whether you stick to one project or jump around.

The only true abandonment is to stop writing.

And that isn’t a tragedy either. Whether we’re kids or adults, we have a right to try things out. Writing may turn out not to be your calling. The theater may be, or particle physics, or the study of larks.

But if  you really want very much to finish a story, when a new idea comes along I suggest you look at your WIP and see if your enthusiasm for it has waned. Consider what the problem might be. Are you unsure of what should come next? Are you uncertain of what your MC should do in the latest situation? Does it all seem boring?

I recommend over and over on the blog that you go to your notes and write down ideas for your current story, for how to get it moving again. I still recommend that, but maybe there’s something else you can do. When we write our subconscious involves itself and sends our upper consciousness messages in code. A new idea may be a message for our WIP. Examine the newbie side by side with the WIP. Does it solve any of the old guy’s problems? Can you use the new idea in what you’re already doing? Can you incorporate aspects of your new MC into your current MC?

Suppose you’re working on more than one story right now and you also have a list of future ideas, plus three new projects are banging on your brain – step back and look at them whole. Maybe make a chart. List all your characters from all your stories. Write down very short summaries of your plots, like “a quest to find the cure to a dread disease” or “a struggle to prove herself in a friend’s eyes” – whatever. Maybe make each story into a few frames in a comic strip, using stick figures if you need to (I would!). Let it all stew inside you for an hour, a day, a week without much conscious thought. Then look at everything. Do you see new connections? Do you see ways that your new ideas can energize your old ones?

Do you notice that you stop in a similar place in all your old unfinished stories? Can you recruit a new, new idea to get you past that point?

Going in another direction, taking a break from a WIP to try something new may just be what the WIP needs.

Here are four prompts:

• Combine elements of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Aladdin” into a single story. If you think of another fairy tale that can go in too, go ahead.

• Four former winners of the lottery, each with his or her own backstory, whose lives post-lottery have not gone well, form a mutual aid society. Write what happens.

• Put these together in a story: a fairy tale prince, a despotic ruler, a fifteen year old modern girl, the killing of a unicorn in the despotic ruler’s herd, and the discovery of an ancient text. If you have a new idea, you have to put it in this story.

• Danielle has lots of friends. She’s a delight to be with, and she makes whichever friend she’s with feel like the most important, the most fascinating, the most charming person on earth. The problem is, she isn’t reliable. She’s late or doesn’t show up at all, although her apologies are irresistible works of performance art. She meets someone new, who falls for her hard. Trouble is, this new character, doesn’t know her history, is unprepared for her behavior. Put what happens in a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Shifting Idea Sands

On April 7, 2011, Angie wrote, …While writing a first draft, I find myself constantly having new ideas for the plot that require me to go back and change several details. This becomes bothersome the further into the story I am, and it also worries me that I will lose some of the original integrity of the story the more I do this. What if, after changing a ton of details and scenes to accommodate a new idea, I realize that my grand new idea actually doesn’t work at all? Then I need to go back and change those scenes back, but will most likely lose a lot of my original work in the process.
As much as I try to plan my plot out ahead of time, I am still at heart an organic sort of writer; I discover the story as I move along. How do I keep from ruining my story as I come up with fresh ideas?

I may have quoted this before from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”


How I wish this weren’t true.

In hunting online for the above quotation, I found this on a blog I’d never visited before, but which you may all already know: More quotes, some funny too.

First to answer the easy part of the question, the only part that I can respond to definitively: You never have to lose original work if you start a new version and save your old one. You can name the old one something descriptive or you can write a note at the top of it that tells you what version it is and what made you start a new one. Then you can go back to the old if your new idea isn’t working out, or you can find those parts of the old that you want to re-insert.

I’m a make-it-up-as-I-go writer too, which makes me inefficient, very inefficient. Take the book I’m working on now, possibly the hardest ever for me. It’s a mystery, but it keeps wanting to be an adventure story, a form I’m more comfortable with, so it frequently veers the wrong way. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote many pages and then realized I’d forgotten to include any suspects. I went back to the beginning, putting in maybe too many suspects, but I made the mystery impossible to solve. In one instance, I don’t remember which, I wrote about 260 pages, in the other about 120. Then I wrote 90 new pages and felt lost, so I sent the thing to my editor, who said the problem was the book wasn’t compelling enough. Started again, and I’m now on page 72. It’s going better but very slowly.

Some writers get it right more quickly than I do, and even I do better on some books than on others. Some writers are even slower than I. This may be scant comfort, but writing is often difficult. I slog from confusion to confusion with clarity coming very gradually. Once, after visiting a school and speaking to the children there, I got a letter from one of them that said something like, I used to want to be a writer but since you came I don’t anymore. It’s too hard.

Of course I groaned. I probably shouldn’t have emphasized the problems to kindergartners. (Joke.) But the kids really were in elementary school, as some of you reading the blog may be. If you are, know that the rewards of writing are at least as great as the pain.

Patience is the first virtue a writer needs to cultivate. Skill won’t ever come if we don’t have the patience to develop it.

Don’t marry your first idea or your second, or your twelfth, but don’t divorce them either. They are each links to the final idea, the one that succeeds, which you couldn’t have gotten to without the others.

As for the ideas you abandon, which you’re now saving, they may be useful in another story or a germ from them may be. Our minds are deep lakes. Idea fish swim there and evolve, eat other fish or get eaten. When you catch your old idea that failed in one story and reel it in, it may have changed so much that you don’t recognize it, but the original is there in its belly, like the golden ring that appears in a fish’s stomach in more than one fairytale.

If you worry about running out of ideas, please don’t. We have new experiences, even when we think nothing is happening in our lives. Our brains are not only lakes but also soil, and new experiences are mulch, which our minds turn over and over and reshape, and ideas sprout.

I just reread a wonderful poem called “Skater” by Ted Kooser that captures this instant-by-instant change in us. Here’s a link to the poem: The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that one cannot step twice into the same river (because the water is always flowing). I’d add that the same person can’t step twice into any river because he is always changing.

This is very philosophical, but basically I mean that new ideas and then bungled new ideas and bungled old ideas are inevitable for some writers, like me. We just have to keep going.

Some writing advice urges the writer to write forward always and never go back. You can try this. If you can do it, great. This method worked for me on A Tale of Two Castles, but not on the new book. Write down your new ideas in your manuscript so you don’t lose them and march on. Then pick up what you had in mind in revision.

However, often the people who write this way hate revising because they’ve got such a mess on their hands by the time they type, The End. I love to revise because by the time I reach the last page I’ve worked out most of the kinks and all I have to do is polish – and usually cut.

A few prompts:

∙    Tessa is sitting in a classroom or studying at home when something happens that changes her forever. Write the scene and make it occurrence that changes her a small moment, the change almost imperceptible but real. Then think again; put her back in the same place and make something different but equally significant happen. Repeat once more. Pick your favorite and turn it into a story.

∙    This can be fantasy or not. Ivan can be a modern boy or a prince who is buying a present for his dad’s birthday. They haven’t been getting along lately, and Ivan wants the present to bring them closer. Write the scene and its effect on the father-son relationship.

∙    Now let’s change it. Ivan wants the present to show his father how distant he feels they’ve grown, so he picks something emblematic of this. Write this scene.

∙    Bring a third character into the scene, Ivan’s older sister Yvette whose relationship with their father is unlike Ivan’s, maybe better, maybe worse. Write the gift giving again. Then think of yet another way to handle it and try that. Expand either one into a scene, a story, a novel, a seven-book series!

Have fun and save what you write!


On February 19, 2010 Katie wrote, …how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?
In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “Eureka!” about getting ideas.  You may want to read that as well as this post.

In my opinion, the most important word in Katie’s question is good, which is a stifling word, especially when you’re in the idea stage.  My definition of a good idea is an idea that makes me think of more ideas.  It may feel stupid, for example, to write a story about a girl with an enormous left thumb.  So you abandon the idea and feel hopeless about ideas.  But suppose you don’t abandon that thumb and let your mind roam.  What would happen if you yourself had a big thumb?  Would you keep injuring it because it gets in the way?  Might you spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office at school?  And in the nurse’s office might you discover a boy who’s there almost constantly, a boy who’s been seen by hardly any other of the students?  What’s he like?  Why is he always sick?  This line of thought could get you started on a story.

Or suppose the thumb belongs to your main character.  It’s a family trait that has skipped five generations.  The last one to have the thumb was a pirate who was hanged, and the queen herself came to the hanging.  But there’s a family legend that someone else was executed in his place, and he’s still sailing the high seas.

Or suppose the big thumb hurts at particular times–during family arguments or before earthquakes or whenever a political figure anywhere in the world is about to be assassinated.

If you decide too soon that an idea is rotten, you lose the chance to hop on its back and fly to all the follow-up ideas.  So I say relax.  When you’re fooling around with ideas, nothing is at stake but some thinking time.

Ideas come to you for a reason, often a reason you (and I) aren’t aware of.  Whatever the idea is, stupid or not, it has meaning.  You don’t ever have to find out what that meaning is, just know that it’s there and try not to judge your idea, because it’s part of you.  Conceivably it’s the goofy part, but goofy is playful, and playful is good.

Suppose you really are dreadful at coming up with initiating ideas, the ones that start a story.  Well, you can borrow someone else’s idea.  This is not theft.  As Maybeawriter commented on the last post, nobody owns an idea.  It’s the expression of an idea that becomes the writer’s intellectual property.  If you want to write about a maiden who’s strangely obedient, feel free.

Copyright law is complicated.  If you write about a character named Ella who is cursed with obedience by a fairy named Lucinda, you may be poaching on my work.  But just the bare bones idea is yours for the taking.  If the story you’re thinking about is very old, you can even borrow the characters including their names.  If you want to call a character Hansel or Gretel, you can.

People have built on stories forever.  Shakespeare did it.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw did it.  I do it (to put myself in exalted company) when I adapt fairy tales for my own use.

Once you pick up an established idea, obviously you have to make it your own, which calls for secondary ideas.  Even a short story needs lots of ideas.  Where is your story going to go?  What characters do you need to take it there?  What obstacles can you throw up to make it hard to reach the ending?  Staying with a goofy idea, you may want goofy obstacles and goofy characters.  The ideas in my series The Princess Tales are mostly goofy.  Goofy, not bad, not stupid.

Without drawing on a particular story, you can ask yourself the kind of story you want to tell:  fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, mystery, whatever.  Write down your answer or answers.  Think about subcategories.  For example, if you love mysteries, do you especially enjoy the historical ones or the contemporary?  Hard-boiled or soft?  Do you like the emphasis to be on the puzzle or on the action?  Speculate about how you might write that kind of story, where it would take place, who would be in it.  Write notes.

Before I started my mystery novel, I remembered how much I loved the Nero Wolfe series (okay for middle school and above and maybe below, I think, but check with a parent or a librarian.  If you want to build up your vocabulary, these books are great.)  My favorite aspect of the series was the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin.  (We named our first dog Archie.)  I wanted to do something similar, create a detecting duo, in my case a girl and a dragon.

For what to do when no ideas come, when you are utterly empty of ideas, try notes.  If idea emptiness describes you, look at the chapter in Writing Magic, because I have a bunch of suggestions there, which I don’t want to repeat. 

Here are a few idea-priming prompts:

•    Pick an object, something in your house, anything, the stove, your violin, your uncle’s needlepoint.  Separate it in your mind from its real history and invent a history for it.  Think of the drama, the tragedy, the comedy that went into its creation, its passage from owner to owner, its effect on the lives of its owners.  Write a story about it.

•    Pick an emotion:  anger, joy, sadness, fear.  Remember the last time you felt that emotion or you watched someone else experience it.  Now move that feeling to a new setting.  Suppose your brother was mad at you for hogging the computer.  Put a character who stands in for him on a rowboat, and make him be the one who wants to row.  What happens?  Or move him to archery practice in Sherwood Forest, and he thinks it’s his turn next.  Think of situations that have built-in tension (possible drowning, arrow wounds).

    If the emotion you pick is joy, you need to make the feeling short-lived.  What will destroy your character’s happiness?

•    Pick two characters from stories you know and put them together in a tight situation, a sinking ship, for example.  Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Captain Hook and the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”  Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” and Snow White.  What would they make of each other?  Would they understand each other?   How can you make them join forces?

Have fun, and save what you write!