The birth of a story idea

Yellowstone 10I just got back from a two-week-long family vacation that hit 15 states and covered 5,800 miles. It was wearying, but I saw a lot of things that I will always remember. I’ve written in the past about how going on vacation helps recharge my creativity. That remains true.

During our long driving stretches through stretches of Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, and other places where there was little to see, I had two different writing projects I worked on. One was a novel and the other a novella. Both were historical fiction. I didn’t complete as much as I would have thought for being on the road at least 100 hours. I did move both projects forward, though.

My surprise, though, was that I came up with an idea for a children’s book. It was a total surprise since I’ve never written a children’s book.Yellowstone 34

We were driving though Yellowstone National Park when we got tied up in traffic because of road work in the park. I saw a slope that led to the road that was covered with lots of flat, loose rocks. I also noticed that the edge of the slope was barely taller than a dump truck stopped on the road.

Now, we had also been watching for bears in the park. For one thing, the park has signs posted all over the place about leaving the wildlife alone. However, we had also been looking for animals. We had already seen bison and elk. My wife said she wanted to see a bear and mountain lion, so I was searching the woods as we drove along looking for bears.

When I saw the rock slope, an image flashed in my mind of a bear cub at the top of the slope losing its footing on the loose rock and tumbling down the hill into the dump truck just as the truck drove off. That became the nugget for my story.

Yellowstone 42Once I realized that was what it was, I had a few stray ideas about possible scenes in the story, but it wasn’t until we reached the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, nearly a week later and halfway across the country that the story gelled for me.

My wife and I were getting ready to climb a steep, rocky trail to an overlook when the story suddenly came to me. I whipped out my smartphone and turned on the recording app. I dictated the outline for the story as we began the climb.

I tell you this story just to show you that you never know what is going to inspire you to write a story. Look around you. There are stories everywhere.

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Facing the skeletons in my writing closet

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I used to wonder how a centerfold or porn actor explains their past to their children. In today’s age of the Internet, it seems all of those past skeletons in the closet never stay there. Just look at what happened a few years ago when all those celebrities’ phones got hacked and someone posted embarrassing photos of them on the internet.

The writer’s version of this must be when old novels or articles come back to haunt them. One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, wrote lots of novels until pen names when he was struggling to make a living. Apparently, some were even softcore porn. He has said in various interviews that he has bought back the rights of those novels and they will never again see the light of day.

However, the novels were published and copies are still out there if you know what name Koontz used when he wrote them. I’m not sure if all of his pen names are known, but if they are, then it’s just a matter of someone finding one of those pen names of a book cover.

When I started out freelancing years ago, I had to scramble to make ends meet. One way I did this was to write for web sites called content mills. They are websites that provide content for a lot of other web sites like eHow.com and Livestrong.com.

The articles didn’t pay much, but they also didn’t require a lot of work. I could turn one article around in an hour, and to be sure, that is what I did. Since content mills didn’t pay well, I wasn’t going to put hours of work into the story. I got $20 for a 500-word article, on average.

So I didn’t put a lot of work into these articles. Turnaround was important, and I tried to do 3 or 4 a day before I went onto the work I really wanted to be writing. These articles weren’t ones that I put a lot of effort into, but I tried and research them to get them right.

On top of this, the articles were vetted by editors who also weren’t putting a lot of time into their work because they got paid by the number of articles they edited. That means, sometimes, even when I had something right, the editor changed it to something that was inaccurate.

I wrote most of these articles around 10 years ago. However, every once in a while I get an e-mail from someone with a question about the accuracy of one of the articles. Most of the inquiries are from polite people, but some are aggressive, accusing me of all sorts of things.

I try my best to answer the questions politely (even the mean ones). However, honestly, I don’t remember these articles. By contrast, I remember the articles I cared about. So I cannot answer these questions fully, which is not a position that I enjoy being in.

I am embarrassed that these older pieces are still out there after all this time. They certainly don’t represent my best work, but they are still out there representing me. I don’t even have any rights to the work because they were all done as work for hire. That means I can’t ask for the articles to be taken down when I come across one of them.

If there is a silver lining, though, these articles show me how far I’ve come since I started on this freelance writing journey.

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Does a change of scenery boost your creativity?

1Someone asked me yesterday if I was a coffee house writer. I thought about it and told her, “Maybe.”

I hadn’t really considered it before, but once I did, I realized that the coffee house writers are, at their essence, writers who need the change of scenery to stimulate their creativity.

While going to a coffee house wouldn’t do me any good since I’m not a coffee drinker, I do think going to a fast-food restaurant, park, or some other different place might help me write more.

  • I have found that I often start to envision scenes and dialogue while taking a long walk or drive. (This week, I even dictated ideas into my phone while riding my bike.)
  • Last summer, during some very nice days, I took my laptop into the sunroom attached to our house to work and found it didn’t disrupt my productivity.
  • When I’m on vacation with my family, I am up hours before they get up in the morning. I typically get a lot of writing done during those times.

These things lead me to believe that maybe a change of scenery a few days a week would help me up my game. There are quite a few places where I could test out this theory and all of them are nearby my house:

  • Fast-food restaurant.
  • Library.
  • Hotel lobby.
  • Park pavilion.

I will try these places out and see which ones work best for me. The added benefit I see is that it will get me moving around, and in the case of a park pavilion, I’ll be outside and enjoying the nice weather.

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Write & Wait vs. Write, Write, Write

A friend wrote me an e-mail yesterday asking for my take on doing simultaneous submissions for article query letters. This is an issue that has vexed a lot of writers. Magazine editors generally don’t like it because it puts pressure on them to respond to an article quickly. However, sending out a query letter and waiting months to hear from an editor isn’t a productive use of the writer’s time. Writers don’t want to tick off editors who might be willing to buy a story by sending out the same query to multiple markets, though.

I’ve got two ways I use to work around this problem.

Customizing a story. Some story ideas lend themselves to market customizing. For instance, I’ve written three articles about an itinerant movie director from the 1920s through 1940s. He would go from city to city using a stock script to shot a movie in which he cast local people in all the parts. He changed the title of the movie based on the city in which he was shooting.

I sold the article to three magazines. Each article was different in that I focused on the movies the director made in the magazine’s market area (i.e., Cumberland, MD; Pennsylvania; Tyrone, PA), but other information in the articles the same, such as biographical information on the director. In cases like this, the articles are different enough that I don’t mind simultaneous queries to non-competing markets.

Make it up in volume. The technique I use more often grew out of the volume of queries I have out at any one time. I’m at the point where I have so many queries with magazines I don’t worry about submitting the same idea to two magazines at once. I send out a query each week. Using this method, simultaneous queries don’t really become an issue because I’m too busy with other ideas.

The exception to this is when an editor doesn’t get back to me about an idea. I usually follow-up with queries if I don’t hear from an editor in a month or so. If I still don’t hear back, I consider the idea open to send to another market.

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Interviewing your main characters

third-degree-interrogationMy writer’s group did an exercise last week I found both interesting and useful. It’s also something you can do with your own writing. Interrogate your characters.

You are questioned by police as a material witness about a crime your book character may have been involved in. The crime is not specified. The interviewer just wants information about your character. You don’t need to pretend to be your character (although that would be a variation on the idea). You just need to answer the questions based on your knowledge of the character.

 

Also, don’t use notes. The idea is to discover how well you know your character. The better you know the character, the easier it will be to write from that character’s perspective.

In watching my writer’s group leader perform the interrogations, it was interesting to see how he uncovered discrepancies with how the character would react in different situations or conflicting personality traits. These were pointed out to the author to consider as he or she wrote. Discovering and rectifying these potential problems before the book is published can save the author headaches later. 

I also saw that the interview could lead to the author making up missing information on the fly. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it remains consistent with the character’s personality.

Try it with your characters and see what you discover that you didn’t know about them.

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Exercise to release your creativity

cyclingI know there are many reasons why, as a writer, you should exercise. At the top of the list is the myriad of health benefits you receive when you exercise regularly. This is particularly important for a writer because our work is such a sedentary activity. You need the activity to keep from growing too wide for your desk chair.

My favorite forms of exercise are bicycling and walking for 1-2 hours 3-5 times a week. I have found that the exercise clears out my head of a lot of the clutter and jumble, worry over projects I’ve got to do, marketing I’ve got to do, and things like that. In clearing that out, it allows me to hear my muse and unleash my creativity. I’ve believed that for a long time, but it became very clear to me yesterday.

I have a short story I need to write. It’s an original story I need to write on deadline because it will be published as a serial. Even though, I had a 1-2 sentence idea about the story; I didn’t know where it would go.

Over the weekend, I had come up with an opening chapter. It works really well, but it is still in a draft form. I was scared to turn it in because as part of a serial; I didn’t know what happens in the rest of the story. I didn’t know how the story would end. I definitely didn’t know how to fill in the middle so it would take up at least six installments. I was feeling a little panicked because I’d been the one who pitched the publisher this idea.

I had a long story I wanted to run because it would give me time to evaluate whether the newspaper’s readers liked serial fiction. My goal was that while that story was running for six months, I would come up with a more localized story for the newspaper’s audience. While the publisher went for the serial idea, she wanted to have it localized right away. I came up with three rough ideas for stories (during another exercise session), and I pitched those ideas to the publisher. She shot down two of them so I agreed to write the third story, which was the weakest of the three ideas.

I was walking yesterday morning and had my phone with me as I always do because it has my fitness tracker on it. It also has a voice recorder. I dictated into the voice recorder as I was walking. Over the course of a few miles, the story fell into place as I outlined, talked about characters, and spoke conversations.

I’ll transcribe the notes I recorded this week and sort them out into a coherent outline. However, it’s enough to know that by the end of my walk, my story was outlined. Yes, I still need to write it, make sure I have chapter breaks at the right points, and edit it, but that is technical details. The heart of the story is worked. Also, I can now edit the opening chapter with the knowledge of what will be coming. This will allow me to do any foreshadowing or adjust anything is needed to fit with how the story will unfold.

Most of all, I am excited about the story and not scared. It is a great story that I can’t wait to write.

So, yes, exercise to release your creativity!

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Secrets of Successful Authors: Write more

Note: This will be the first post in a series that write from time to time that look into the habits of successful authors. While I make a living from my writing, I’m still far from where I want to be. My hope is that as I examine these habits, I’ll learn just as much as you.

Successful authors write… and continue to write.

The old saying is, “Writers write.” Well, successful authors write more.

Look at your favorite indie author who is selling well. I bet you’ll also find he or she has a strong backlist of titles and probably publishes more than a single title a year, which seems to be the standard among traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean that such writers are hack because they write fast. I remember as a teenager reading that my favorite author at the time, Louis L’Amour, used to write three books a year when he was an up-and-coming author.

The simple fact is that if you want to make a living writing, you need to have books for fans to buy. Once you have turned a reader into a fan, that fan is going to want to read more of what you write. You need to have additional titles to capitalize on that enthusiasm. If you have 100 fans and only one book, you can only sell 100 books, but if you have 10 books out, you can potentially sell 1000 books.

Author David Gaughran writes in Let’s Get Digital that having additional titles is more effective than many platform-building activities that authors do.

A deep backlist also helps with your marketing efforts. For instance, if you have one book out, it’s hard to run a free book promotion. However, if you write a trilogy, you can offer the first book at a deal to hook readers and have them purchase the other books at the regular price. Similarly, when I sell books at a festival, I offer a “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” deal. It’s a deal that has significantly increased my sales, but I wouldn’t be able to offer it if I only had one or two titles out.

So once your current book is released, market it, but also start working on your next book.

This, of course, means you’ll need to spend more time writing. That is hard to do if you are also working a full-time job, but work to find the time.

It is a cumulative effect. The more books you get out, the greater your chances at seeing success. The more-successful you are, not only will you be more motivated to write, you will be earning more. This should help you cut back on other work.

Obviously, it will take time to build up your backlist so any extra time you can devote to your writing now will pay off down the line.

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