Susan Patron finds her muse in a laundry basket

Revision update: Couldn’t get up early this morning, so nothing new. Oh well. Must do better tomorrow. Luckily, it’s a holiday. ūüôā

I read a lovely interview with author Susan Patron today, on author Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s blog, and love that Susan originally got her inspiration from a laundry basket. (Susan is the author of the Lucky series.)

Well, not exactly from a laundry basket, but as Susan describes it, when she was young and would tell stories to her sister, she would imagine that the laundry basket was full of stories and she just had to open it and pull them out. It took away the responsibility of having to create stories, because the laundry basket was always full of them. Instead of having to create stories, Susan just had to retrieve them.

This is similar to what The Artist’s Way teaches when it says creativity is a pond and we have to fill it regularly so we can keep fishing from it. (I read the book companion to this years ago.)

Writing can be frustrating when you don’t feel like your muse is there. But turning it around, telling yourself that you don’t have to write or create the next award-winning title, that all you have to do is put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — and enjoy yourself, can relax you enough to let the muse in. Like imagining that it’s not you creating the story; it’s already in the laundry basket.

My laundry basket would be an old painted wooden box I got as a kid. Where do you keep your stories?

Write On!

"Spanking the muse"

More busy days with my day-job, so I’m sorry these blog posts are coming slowly. But not it’s Friday night, work is over for the week, laundry is folded — almost — and I’m sitting in front of Becoming Jane, laptop on my lap and glass of wine by my side. Ahhh

Here’s number two of my posts from the North Texas SCBWI conference last weekend. Illustrator David Diaz, who won the Caldecott Medal (and he told us it is an actual medal, that’s quite heavy) for the picture book Smoky Night, talked about writer’s block and what he called, “spanking the muse.”

David’s amusing talk gave some interesting insight in the ways in which writers and illustrators deal with those times when they have trouble creating.¬†Prior to the conference, he did a (non)scientific study¬†on Facebook and found that many creative types use many things to bring on the muse, with alcohol¬†rated quite high.

But from David’s advice¬†from the study, here are a few tips:

  • Focus –¬†on what you’re trying to achieve
  • Change your medium – write¬†with pen and paper if you’re used to a computer
  • Slow down or speed up – too much technique can¬†kill creativity; let¬†it flow
  • Move your butt – go¬†for a walk or something to change your environment
  • Feed your head –¬†nurture your inner creative person by providing creative things (David said he spends much time combing magazines for inspiration)
  • Embrace your inner dinker – allow yourself the freedom to dinker (David’s word for procrastinate) as long it¬†opens you up to let the muse come in

David showed a number of quotes about the muse, and here are my two favorites:

“One reason I don’t suffer writer’s block is that I don’t wait for the muse. I summon her at need.” — Piers Anthony

“I have a wonderful muse called alimony.” — Dick Shaap

ūüôā

I love both of these, and I think they both have the same message: Make your own muse.

I’m going off David’s talk now, but I’m a believer¬†making your own muse. I used to write whenever¬†I had the time, and I got writer’s block¬†often. But since I made the commitment to write every day,¬†writer’s block hasn’t¬†been as much of a problem, and¬†my muse mostly stays close by. To me, the muse will give to you whatever you give to her (him or it). Inspiration comes when you’re living your story, writing every day and keeping the characters in your head as much as often when you’re not actively writing. Do that, and you’ll always have somewhere to go in the story, because your characters will always be taking you somewhere.

Robert McKee, author of Story, said the key to overcoming writer’s block is research. For me, whether you’re actually researching some aspect of your story or simply thinking about your story and actively writing, it’s one and the same. Both keep your muse at your side.

One of the best talks I’ve seen on creativity (as well as David’s, of course)¬†is from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Love, Pray. I’ve linked to¬†it before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. And this time I found the code so I could actually embed the video. It’s about 20 minutes, but it’s worth watching; you won’t be disappointed.

How’s your muse treating you?

Write On!

What to do when you've finished your book

Typing The End after spending months or even years writing a book is an exciting, thrilling thing. But when it’s done, what do you do?

After celebrating with a nice dinner and good bottle of wine, if you’re like me, you want to scroll all the way back up to page 1 and start revising. But WAIT!

You’ve had these characters and this story floating around in your head for all these months, and although you’re going to miss being around them for a little while, you’ll gain more if you keep a bit of distance.

Because we have the story in our heads so much, if we re-read it now, we’ll most likely follow along the same paths we took in our first draft, because it’s familiar. But if we wait, at least two weeks but preferably a month or two, we have the opportunity to see the story fresh in a new light. And¬†with that, we have the opportunity to take the story to a new level of creativity, in the action, dialog and words.

At a seminar I attended years ago, one thing has stayed with me: Never settle for your first idea. The more ways you think about writing a scene, a line of dialog or a description, the more it’ll be your own.

Ever seen a movie trailer or read about a book and thought, Hey, that’s like my idea? As the seminar speaker reminded us, people often have the same ideas — I don’t know why, perhaps because we all have similar experiences that we get our ideas from.

As that is true, to make our work as creative and our own as possible, we need to dig down to the fifth or sixth, even tenth idea of how to do that scene, line of dialog or description.

Digging down to deeper creativity, will also give our work that strong voice we always here about — our voice — and make our work stand out in comparison to all the other manuscripts trying to find an agent and/or editor. Especially in the current economy, when both agents and publishing houses are being more choosy about which books to invest time and money in, standing out is all the more important.

So, what to do when you’ve finished your book? Start on your next. You don’t have to finish it before you go back to researching your last book. You don’t even have to start writing, but start thinking, start researching, start planning. Let new ideas and characters float around in your head. Get as prepared as you can be, then take a break, and do your revision. Getting your mind focused on something else will help make you that much fresher when you go back to the revision, and this preparation time will make you ready to roll when you’re done with your revisions and can move onto your next project.

What are you working on?

Write On!

The origin of creativity

TED.com has a video of a great talk from¬†author Elizabeth Gilbert about nurturing creativity. She talks about where creativity comes from and how in today’s society, when an author or creative person achieves a certain amount of success, there’s enormous pressure to do even better next time. Gilbert can attest after the huge (she calls it “freakish”) success of her Eat, Pray, Love. To relieve some of the pressure, she suggests that we stop thinking of successful creative types as geniuses (with the need to constantly repeat the genius) and instead adopt some of the ideas of the Greeks and Romans, who believed that creativity was a gift from the gods (thereby taking some of the pressure off us). Of course, Elizabeth Gilbert says it all much better than me, so I recommend taking 20 minutes and watching the video.

I totally agree with what Elizabeth’s saying. Sure we work hard at our writing, and we grow our talent and skills, but there’s more to creativity than that. And in my experience, that more is God. I believe that God gives us all gifts when we are born, and we can choose to use them, build on them, or not. And He can help, but we have to ask. That’s free will.

I also think He gives us nudges, pokes to get us going in the right direction. And hopefully we’re open to them, and if we follow through, follow His will, then everything’s beautiful — still work, but beautiful nonetheless.

When I got the idea for the Sir Newton books, I did nothing with it. I thought it was a good idea, but frankly, honestly, I was scared to do anything with it, to take a chance of failing. So I didn’t do anything. Then one day, when I was walking to work, the idea popped into my head again, but not a simple, “Hi, remember me?” It was like a tornado. The idea burrowed into my head and exploded into a heap of other ideas, about how the books would look, what kind of content they would have, why they would sell, etc. It felt as though something was¬†shouting at me:¬†“Hey, I gave you this great idea a while back, and you’re not doing anything with it. Here’s what it could be. Do something with it.” Needless to say, I did something with it and they have been a success.

More recently, I was doing the structural revision of my novel and¬†I was revising a part that had made me stuck for days. I just couldn’t think of a good way to fix the problem, and I had gone over it and over it. My plan was to stop torturing myself and take a break for a couple days in the hope that inspiration would strike. But that night, I was at our local church sitting in our Adoration chapel (I was raised¬†Catholic), and I was talking to Our Lord and telling Him the problems I was having. I asked Him to help and basically said that I believed God had given me the idea for this novel, but if I was going to do it well, I needed His help, because I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Despite planning to take a break on the revision, the next morning, I woke up early¬†with the solution in my head. I jumped on my computer and had the problem solved in an hour, and not only was it solved, but I got all these other great ideas. Thank you, God.

A family friend who’s a priest told me once that I should pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance before I start writing every day. I don’t. I always forget. But I do pray about my writing regularly, and when I do, I can see the change in the work.

What drives your creativity?

Write On!

Vote for the Community Story

I finally finished my novel revision on Saturday, only three days past my end-of-year deadline. At least it’s finished. Next up, finish editing a friend’s novel, do our taxes (ugg) and then¬†back to¬†my novel for a good polish.

Even though I’ve just finished the revision, I actually can’t wait to start from the beginning again. The characters are still alive in my mind, and I’ve been writing down notes of ideas to consider in the next revision. But I’m holding myself back for two reasons: first, I really need to get these other things done, and second, time away from your work helps you see it in a new perspective, see the flaws, the mistakes, the typos spell check won’t find. So, I’m sticking to my guns, but hopefully, it won’t be long until I’m back in that world.

And, it’s the new year (HAPPY NEW YEAR!), and so, time to start the Community Story. I meant to write this on Sunday, then yesterday, but time ran away with me (he’s funny like that).

As a reminder, the Community Story is something that I’ll moderate on this blog but we will all be able to contribute to. Kind of like regular writer prompts, but with a running theme. We’ll start by voting for the story start from the ones submitted by readers (listed below), then, in the comments, you can add your suggestions for what should come next in the story. Each week, I’ll post the next sentence or paragraph for the running story and we can continue to add to it and see where it goes. How fun!

The Community Story is not for future publication outside of this blog. It’s just for fun, something to keep our creative juices flowing. When you’re stuck or need a quick break, you can check here for the latest in the Community Story and add your own next piece.

So, here are our Community Story beginnings. Please vote in the comments.

Thanks to Mand for this entry: It wasn’t the first time Derek had been swimming, but it was the loudest.

Gratitude to Shane for: Bonnie’s eyes flickered open as she laid on her back looking up at the sky. She caught a brief glimpse of a person moving away from a ledge 30 feet above her. Slightly dazed, she was not sure if she had fallen or been pushed, but what she did know was that her back was hurt and her head was throbbing from her fall.

Kudos to Jamie for: Rain spat down the window as he watched his mother‚Äôs ‚Äė67 Impala drive away.

Gracias to Jennie Wong for: Sherry fought the urge to drink away her troubles, but it was especially hard given her job as a wine critic.

Merci to Layne for: Erika pulled her hood over her head as she boarded the red line to Bethesda. She drew the note from her pocket, re-reading the instructions for the thousandth time. Who was this man, and what did he want with her? ‚ÄúI should have brought a weapon,‚ÄĚ she thought.

Thanks to KC for: Abraham followed the acrid stench to the door at the end of the hall.

And lastely, from me: Sarah knew all about ice. She knew it happened when the air got really cold and your breath turned into smoke. She knew it was hardened water and would melt in the spring. She knew it could make icicles that were as sharp as needles. What she didn’t know, until now, was that a face could be buried in it.

Vote On!

Community story

I’ve gotten so used to checking in from my NaNoWriMo posts, that after I was done with my writing this morning, I immediately came here. Knowing I had to post every day did help me stay on track (I missed four days of writing out of 30, but that’s a lot less than I have missed in the past), so I plan to continue to check in as motivation to get me out of bed early every morning to write.

Another thing I think helped this morning was setting a goal yesterday. Yesterday I set the plan for today to rework chapter 14 of my novel so it better fits the new outline I laid out. Setting that goal yesterday, I knew exactly what I was doing when I sat in front of the computer this morning, and it made the revising go that much smoother. I managed to do both scenes in the chapter. And my goal for tomorrow is to revise chapter 15.

On a different note, in the new year I thought it would be fun to try a community story (actually, it was my husband’s idea — Thanks, Babe!). The idea is that I’ll post a beginning of a story on the blog, and each week, I’ll add a couple paragraphs and we’ll see where the story goes. The fun part is that as it will be a community story, you can write it too. Add your ideas to the post, in the comments, as to where you think the story should go next. Even write the next couple paragraphs. Whichever is the best one will be the next post the following week.

Sometimes, working on something that’s creative outside of what you’re writing, can help get your juices flowing or give you ideas for what you’re doing. That’s the idea with the community story. It’s not for publication (outside of this blog). It should be something fun, a little aside to keep us going.

I’ll start the community story the first Monday in the new year. For now, I’m opening it up for story ideas and character ideas. Got a good writing prompt that we can start with? Post it in a comment. The week before we start, we can all vote on the one we like the best.

Write On!

Day 17 and research to write

Didn’t get too much actual writing done today, in day 17 of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month. Instead I researched and thought, still trying to figure out the middle that I thought was behind me. Sigh. It’s frustrating, but worth it to do this work and get it right.

Coincidentally, today my husband sent me a link to an article about writing consultant Robert McKee saying Hollywood is “dying.” That was a quote, but if you read on, I don’t think it’s actually what he meant. He meant it more as a warning, that Hollywood is losing¬†good stories.

McKee is¬†a screenwriter’s guru,¬†but¬†what he teaches applies to writers of all¬†fiction, be they¬†screenwriters or novelists. McKee’s book Story, which Janet Fox quoted at the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference, is a very interesting and useful book to writers of all kinds. I’ve read it and recommend it for any writer’s shelf.

Anyway, at a recent seminar McKee was giving, he talked about the state of today’s movies (screenwriters are his primary audience) — of course, there’s a reason why most good movies nowadays are based on a novel. But McKee¬†explained that to write good stories, writers should research. The more research they do, the story will write itself, he said.

Doing a lot of research follows what Cynthia Leitich Smith said about setting and Janet Fox said about character at the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference. Research is key to truly knowing your world and your characters, and from them the story will come.

Cynthia Leitich Smith suggested visited the settings you’re writing about, while Janet Fox suggested making scrapbooks for characters (click for more).

What do you do to research your work?

Write On!

Finding ideas

One of the most asked writer questions — I’d be willing to bet, but I haven’t done a formal study — must be “Where do you find your ideas?” I’ve been asked it a lot, and I’m not a well-known writer. I’d guess J.K. Rowling could feed a school-full of children for months if she got a penny for every time she’s been asked this.

There is, of course, no one answer. Some people get ideas in dreams, and some people get ideas everywhere from walking around the supermarket to driving to taking a shower.

Driving and showering are often creative times for me, apparently, according to articles I’ve read, because those are times when your brain is on autopilot, requiring little concentration (although judging by most drivers, we might be on autopilot a little too much on the roads) and allowing our brains to wander. I’ve also gotten quite a few ideas, and solved a few plot problems, in church (it’s wonderful to sit there quietly alone, very peaceful).

Dreaming is the same, a time when your brain can play and new ideas can pop up. The difficulty with dreams is that many of us don’t remember our dreams. I’ve read the advice to keep a book next to my bed to jot down ideas as soon as I wake up and before they dissipate, but it doesn’t often work for me, as my dreams seem to go bye bye as soon as I open my eyes. Some people can have just a scene, an image that sparks a story (how Stephenie Meyer was inspired for Twilight), or the entire story can unravel in a dream. The other day, my husband told me his dream, which was a fully fleshed out short story, complete with twist ending and social commentary. I’m so jealous.

Sometimes dreams do stay with me, however, and those are the ones I figure I should try to pay attention to, as they must have fought hard to stay in my brain. I had one such idea the other morning. There was more to it when I was dreaming it, but when I woke up, all that stayed with me was the title and a vague idea. But it’s promising and I think has the makings of a good picture book. Better yet, I told me husband the idea, and he filled in the ending. Maybe he had the same dream I did.

One writer I chatted with on JacketFlap one day said her stories come from a title. I had been complementing her on the fun titles of her books, and she said the titles pop into her head and she formulates a story around them.

However the ideas come, the important thing is to write them down — no matter how small — and allow them to seed, grow and produce fruit in our brains and on the page.

So, I’ll ask it: Where do you get your ideas?

Write On!

Revising from notes

At my critique group a couple of weeks ago, someone asked me what I wanted to achieve in my revision of my middle-grade novel, if I had specific things I knew I wanted to do.

 

During my break, I had thought about this a lot — anxious to start working on the novel again and get back into that world. But even before I had finished the book, I had plans of what I wanted to do when I got around to the revision.

 

When I started writing the novel, I would revise as I went, a habit brought over from two things: a) being an editor in my day-job, and b) being used to writing shorter pieces, short stories, articles, etc. But the problem was, I found that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I spent six months, probably, writing and revising the first three chapters (there were originally six, maybe seven chapters that got condensed down to the first three). On the one hand, doing that early on, I think, helped me get a good grasp of the characters and the foundation of the story. I wrote so many scenes and so much background that ended up getting cut, but they were still in the life of my protagonist, they still shaped his character, and because I know they happened, I know him so much better.

 

However, because I wasn’t moving on, I was getting frustrated. So one day, I decided to finally follow my husband’s advice — he had been telling me to stop revising and just move forward for ages; why don’t we listen? ūüôā — and just get to the end of the story. Revision would come later.

 

The novel moved much faster after that, and I felt much more freed creatively to just let the words flow and not worry too much if they weren’t the right words. Somewhere in the middle, I realized I had gone astray a bit with the plot and needed to go back and fix some things so that new things would make sense.

 

I contemplated doing those revision immediately but finally decided against it. I didn’t want to get caught in that cycle again. I was on a roll, and I just wanted to get to The End. So, I instead made notes, lots of notes, for what I had to do when I started to revise.

 

Those notes are now my bible. And as I’m revising back at the beginning, I’m seeing little details that I had added with the plan of having them pay off later, little harbingers of things to come. Only they were dropped somewhere along the line, forgotten¬†in one of those times when I took a hiatus from writing the novel. (Another good reason to write every day, or as close to it as possible.) And those harbingers are going into my notes now too, so I can now have them pay off when I get further into the book.

 

What¬†are you¬†trying to achieve¬†when you’re revising?

 

Write On!

Reading to write

I’m back on the novel. Last week was still really busy, but I jumped into the rewrite of my novel anyway. Time to start waking up at 6 am again! New goal: Finish the rewrite by November.

 

I’ve also made strides with the Sir Newton Color Me Florida book. Drawings are completed and fixed up in the computer. All that’s left is finishing the layout and final editing.

 

During my novel hiatus, I still worked on it through reading. Any time I’ve been stuck in my writing, reading has helped bring me back. The more you read, the rhythm of the story, pacing, dialog — it seeps into your brain like osmosis. To get you in the mood — so to speak — for your own work, read books that fit what you’re writing. If you’re writing a fantasy, read a fantasy. If you’re writing in first-person, read a book that’s written in first-person. Also, read what’s hot, what your target audience is reading.

 

How¬†can you find the best books in your area? Librarians are a great place to start. They’ll be able to¬†tell you which books kids are¬†checking out the most.¬†The¬†message board on the SCBWI¬†website is a good source too, if you’re a member.¬†You can also try the good old Internet.¬†I found a great link for this while I was doing some research yesterday: A message thread on Amazon detailing the best books to get middle grade boys to read. (Click here to read the thread.¬†Make sure to read the post from Julie M. Effertz.) Write down these books, and that’s your must-read list.

 

What books are you reading right now? What’s on your must-read list?

 

Write On!