Tuesday, January 31, 2012


One of the most frequent questions authors are asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer involves a myriad of layers. I will peel the first three here, like an onion, for those of you who desperately require a dose of inspiration.

First layer: Where did you in particular, author Jane Smith, get the idea for this particular story, "The Story of that Guy and that Girl."

Layer one does have an answer. Of course, it varies from story to story, and author to author. Some of the many places I, personally, author Suzanne Church, have been inspired, are listed below. For fun, I also included the published stories that came into existance due to that inspiration (shown in square brackets). Note that some stories involve more than one inspirational source.

Word prompts ["Destiny Lives in the Tattoo's Needle"]
Photo/image prompts ["Coolies" and "Hell's Deadline"]
Mis-seeing or mis-reading a person, an image, a sign, a phrase, etc. ["Free Range"]
What if questions...what if couches were transporters ["Everyone Needs a Couch"] what if chickens could talk? ["Free Range" and "Yummy Mutants"] how do aliens pee? ["Waste Management"]
An opening sentence ["The Tear Closet" and "Destiny Lives in the Tattoo's Needle"]
An anthology or magazine theme ["Hot Furball on a Cold Morning" and "Free Range"]
World events and/or non-fiction research ["The Needle's Eye"]
Writers group challenges...write your own twist on a fairy tale/folk/myth ["Storm Child"] write a story about a funeral ["Driving the Past Home"]

Second Layer: How did you come up with this new twist on this old trope/story/theme?

Layer two involves work. I remember one of my tutors telling a story about how a visual artist would take a simple item and change it a bunch of ways. For instance, let's say the artist grabbed a simple object, like a Matchbox car. Then she would pull a tire off, or maybe melt the car in an oven. Then she would take the broken/melted car and glue it to a cardboard box. Then she would leave the box out in the rain and sun for say, a week. Then she would take the piece and throw paint at it. Then she would bury it in the yard. When looking for inspiration, she would unearth the artefact, take photos of the "dig" and use those photos as the foundation of a collage piece.

I know, I'm exaggerating a bit here, but I hope you're getting the point. Sometimes you have to take an idea and manipulate it in several different ways before it becomes your own. "Voice" is a big factor here...perhaps I will talk more about finding your "Voice" in a future post, but suffice it to say, that this layer of the creative process is where you as a writer put your own mark on the piece.

Third Layer: How do you stare at a blank page and come up with a hundred thousand words worth of characters and plot that are so amazing?

Layer three is the most work, and is made up of at least two answers.

Part one
"Fill the well" (quote from Bruce Holland Rogers) with events and activities that allow you to "Speak your truth" (quote from Mort Castle). The gist of this statement is you must LIVE. Experience whatever you possibly can. Go to an art gallery and watch the people study the art. Go to a rock concert (bring earplugs) and dance in the mosh pit. Go to a hockey or football or baseball or soccer game (no matter how much it costs) and cheer on your favorite team until you are hoarse. Take notes, or photos, or videos. Keep epic journals about your adventures. Then, when you need inspiration, read the journal entries, or watch the videos, or click through your photos and remember all of it...the smells, the excitement, the dread, whatever! Then put it all in your story, every inch and pound and laugh and tear. Your readers will buy into your story because it is full of the real.

Part two
Do the work. Plain and simple. Sit down in front of your notebook, or laptop, or netbook, or whatever, and write. One sentence. Then two. Then another paragraph. And soon you will have a page, or three, then a chapter. And keep in mind that whatever you get on paper, you can always change it later, add an image here or a metaphor there. But it's awfully hard to edit a blank page, so do the work and get words down on paper. Don't allow yourself to get up from that chair (except for emergencies of course) until you have some words down.

Any words.

It's all about establishing the habit. (Read more about Establishing the Habit in my previous post.)

So that's the first three layers of answers to the most common question asked of authors. And if you've ever asked a writer this question, do you understand now why they rolled their eyes, or smiled and said nothing? Because, it's almost impossible to answer, and when you try, you can talk forever and still not say it all.

Write on.

One hundred words today.

Go on...do it. Now.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SWG CritQuotes

Overheard at the January 22, 2012 Stopwatch Gang critique session...

"Usually when someone says 'Johnson' it means they're uncircumcised. Did you know that?"

A: "Christmas, an orgasm, and then a big crap? One of these things just doesn't belong here."
B: "Christmas?"

"Instead of mittens, giver her a muff. Then you can say, 'She's hiding it in her muff!'"

"Lesbians? That purple chick? Lesbian stuff--that's HOT!"

A: "Some of your names bothered me. 'Nether' made me think of 'nether regions' and got my mind thinking of something else."
B: "Mittens?"

"Synch, synch a song..."

A: "It's an arcology."
B: "Oncology?"
Everyone else: "ARCOLOGY!"

"I was going to print, 'It was' in the largest possible font to fill an 8.5x11 sheet of paper and make you eat it at the meeting, the structure bothered me so much."

Submission Trackers

Most of us write because we love the act of putting characters through hell. But let's face the fact that we also want to publish what we write.

Keeping careful track of submissions is crucial. At the start of your fledgling writing career, you might want to believe that you only have a story or two and naturally you can keep track of who has rejected your precious new babies. Trust me, five years from now, when you have many stories in circulation and some of them have been rejected by over a dozen markets you need to remember which stories have been where.

I use a spreadsheet for this task.

The first section of my spreadsheet lists each short story, in the order they were written (to give me a sense of history) but you could go with alphabetical by title if that works for you. After the title, I show the number of words for the story (important when you want to send one out in a hurry and you're checking guidelines to determine what fits where.) Then I have a calculation that determines how many acceptances (#Y), rejections (#N), and submissions (#S) have occurred for each story.

To the right, I list each submission, the date the story was submitted and the expected date of reply. Once the reply comes in, I update that space with a yes or a no. So an entry would look something like:

Title       #Y #N #S     Words    Sub 1                     Response       Sub 2                     Response
Slimed    0   1     2      3500     Asimov's Dec 3/11   No Jan 18/12   IGMS Jan 19/12     Due Feb 28/12

Most markets do NOT accept re-submissions of a story (even if you've made some improvements,) so it's best to keep track of where a story has been so you don't accidently send it twice.

When a story is accepted, I highlight the cell in a bright color so I can easily see which stories have sold. When a story is currently not submitted anywhere, I change the text for the title to bright red so at a glance I can see which stories need to go back into circulation ASAP.

In another part of the spreadsheet, I list all of the markets and write the title of the currently submitted story beside the market. That way, I don't accidently send two stories to the same place at the same time. (Many markets don't accept multiple submissions.)

I believe there are several "submission trackers" available online, if you don't want to create your own. The most important concept is to use one that works for you.

I must admit, there's a certain "bragging right" in knowing how many rejections you've accumulated over the years. As of this morning, I'm at 284 rejections out of 302 submissions for my short fiction.

And yes, I have a different spreadsheet for tracking novels, mostly to keep a record of agent submissions as well as publisher submissions for each novel.

If you're still deciding whether or not to bother with a submission tracker, keep in mind that setting up a spreadsheet is the perfect procrastination on a day when you should be writing but you can't quite face the blank page.

But eventually, writer, you must face that blank page!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Writing on the Run

Last week I discussed Club 100, suggesting that establishing the writing habit involves consistency and diligence. But we all have those days when our lives steer so far off the "plan" that we end up in the ditch.

Yesterday was one of those days for me. Yet I managed to scribble 100 creative words in a notebook to keep my count going. Today is day 8 for me.

I scored last minute tickets this morning to a Toronto Maple Leafs game and spent most of the day getting organized to get to the game. At this very moment, I am on a GO bus headed to Toronto. A few minutes ago I realized that today is Tuesday, my day to blog for the SWG.

Thank goodness for technology!

Most of us carry a smartphone or a tablet and I often have both. Once I chose to take my writing seriously, I made sure I possessed the technological toolbox to get the job done. Luckily, I can claim portions of the purchases for income tax purposes.

If you are having trouble making writing a habit, try jotting a few words in the note-area on your phone, or on the word processor on your tablet. I wouldn't recommend writing a 200,000 word novel that way (though I've heard it's a trend in Japan), but a few hundred words are a snap.

And it all counts.

You might be thinking that this type of writing might not seem as productive as butt-in-chair time in front of your laptop, but that sort of thinking might be worming it's way into the excuse/procrastination column of your word-count ledger.

Sometimes your only option is to write on the run.

Try it as a challenge this week. Write on the bus, or in a line at the store, or at your kid's hockey game.

Don't waste the opportunity to stay in the heads of your characters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Establishing the Habit

If you choose any book on the art of writing from a shelf, the piece of advice you will always find is to write every day.

Every single day. Without fail.

Because writers can only be writers if they make writing a habit. And it should feel like a habit after a while, as though you'll go insane or scratch the insides of your eyelids out if you don't have time to write today.

But getting to that point, ingraining a habit, can be tough for new writers.

One challenge that worked particularly well for me is "Club 100 For Writers." The concept was developed by Beth Patillo. You can read more about the club or join her mailing list.

The gist is you write 100 words every day for 100 days.

Sounds easy, right? Or should I say, write?

In actuality, it's harder than it sounds, especially if you've never taken your writing so seriously that it trumps all other activities, even for fifteen minutes, every day. And that's what being in Club 100 is all about.

That's what being a writer is all about...putting your writing at the top of your to-do list. Either first thing in the morning, or right before bed, or over your lunch hour, or whatever works for you.

Several times in my writing career, I have put my nose to the grindstone and pulled off a Club 100 victory. At one point, I tried using my word-a-day blog to motivate me, but that didn't work. Finally I tried paper journal/notebooks (nice ones, like Moleskine, Paperblanks, or Time Traveler) and that worked. Though in my mind, writing a "journal entry" doesn't cut it. The words have to be fiction.

That's my hard-fast rule: Fiction only.

To make it easier, I use one trigger-word as an inspiration. I either ask someone for the word or I take it from the TV, or the radio, or a sign, or whatever word pops into my head. But that word must appear in the first sentence of the entry.

Sharpen your pencils, writers, and...go!

I will try to check-in after 100 days, to see how you're all doing. Yes, that means I'm watching you. Mwah ha ha!

Click through on Suzanne's icon in the list of followers to read her word-a-day blog for a glimpse of today's 100+ words.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

On the subject of making writing-specific New Year's resolutions

As this is the first official working day of 2012, I spent the morning procrastinating instead of writing. But some writers would argue that setting resolutions for the New Year is in fact work, or at the very least, a form of non-fiction writing.

For the record, I side with "those" writers.

The benefits of setting writing goals are many.

First, you are accountable.  To yourself, to your writers' group members, and to the world at large. You have made a contract between yourself and the page to meet certain benchmarks. And most writers will tell you that having a contract-based deadline is one powerful motivator to get the job done.

A secondary benefit of writing resolutions is the exercise itself. I spend a half-day cataloguing a year's worth of effort and most times, this activity leads to a certain sense of personal accomplishment. After all, I work for myself and I'm not about to give myself a performance evaluation nor do I have the power (I wish!) to give myself a raise. Nope, my writing work doesn't follow the same prescribed pattern of the traditional worker in the traditional job with a traditional manager and set of prescribed compensations. Thus, I need to set resolutions as a way to ensure that I'm coloring inside the lines, so to speak.

Third, I challenge myself to delve into new segments of the writing market. Resolutions can also act as prodders, giving me the freedom to branch out in different directions. For the second year in a row, the word "poetry" appears on my resolution list, a subsidiary of prose that I approach each year with caution and a shot of awe.

If you are on the brink of taking writing more seriously, if one of your personal resolutions is to write down those ideas you've been dabbling with for decades, then I highly recommend you make resolutions for your writing.

Keep in mind a few guidelines:

1)      Make moderate goals that are achievable so that you don't get crushed in a month when you realize how impossible the goals truly were.

2)      Include value-based, measurable goals (500 words a day, 10 submissions for the year, etc) rather than vague goals (write a comfortable number of words a day).

3)      Consider a consequence if you don't meet a goal (I will wear pyjamas to the January writers' group meeting if I submit less than 5 times this year).

4)      Revisit the goals quarterly, to make necessary course corrections.

Don't wait any longer. Make yourself some writing resolutions, then put those fingers to the keyboard and soar.

To read Suzanne's resolutions, go to http://canadiansuzanne.livejournal.com/291704.html