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Nov. 20th, 2009

First Line Friday: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Today wraps up Where Do You Get Your Ideas week, and one thing I've learned for realz is how hard it is to BLOG. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Props to my blogging friends who manage to update every day or even twice a day. I don't know how you do it, but now I'm doubly impressed by you.

I've also learned that I never find typos until I've posted my blog EVERYWHERE in cyberspace. *thunks forehead on desk*

Anyway, so today is all about first lines and using them to inspire a piece of writing. I, personally, love first line prompts!

Here's a little known fact. The very first piece of writing I ever submitted to a magazine was a first line prompt contest entry for Writer's Journal magazine (Write to Win!). I can't even remember now what the prompt was (something about hearing voices). I sent in a short story about a girl hearing her dead grandmother's voice. Turned out, I got an honorable mention in that contest, and that was all I needed to push me to continue writing. Cool, huh?

Since, I've used first line prompts to create several short stories that have either been published or have placed in contests. First lines rock, baby!!!

But it's not always about someone else giving me a first line to work with. Sometimes the first line of a story will just appear in my head. Just one sentence, and it sticks there in my brain. And sometimes that first line is just intriguing enough for me to want to pursue a whole story.

For example, here's a first line that popped into my head one day, and it was enough for me to pursue the story:

The day my dad won the mayoral race, Benjy took me to the abortion clinic.

Another first line that started a short story:

I blame it all on Otis Spunkmeyer.

The first line that got me really rolling on my next YA novel was this:

Dad always said Mom was crazier than goosehouse shit.

Something about that line makes me laugh, and tells me so much about the main character it's not even funny, but alas, that sentence got moved farther down in the chapter and now the first line is:

The worst part about selling soup is the napkins.

Which is not a bad first line, either.

Anyway, you get the point. You get to know a lot about your character in a tasty first line. You also get a hint at some tension or a problem. And you want to know the next line. And the one after that. And what's best about a story being inspired by an intriguing first line is that the first line is, by definition, almost always an interesting one, which is super important in drawing the reader in.

This is one of my favorite ways for a story to come to me (which is why, incidentally, I saved it for last, even though it would have been infinitely easier to have Formula Friday and I wouldn't have had to get my thesaurus out yesterday. But then... I never would've used the word "theorem" yesterday and been all impressed with myself). And, yes, I did say "come to me," because a part of me feels like an innocent bystander in the case of first line inspiration. But I know they're out there and I keep my net ready to catch a good one when it floats by.

I love when I open my net to find all these colorful sentences quivering inside... and I can't help but wonder which ones of them will make great stories.

Nov. 19th, 2009

Theorem Thursday: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

First, let me say how freaking proud I am of myself for using the word "theorem" in my blog title. I haven't used that word since 10th grade geometry class. Go, me!

But on to today's inspiration.

When I first started writing, I found it terribly difficult to come up with ideas of what to write about. I'm not a particularly creative person. I don't have story ideas just popping into my head all the time like some writers do. I needed a formula.

At the time, I was reading Stephen King's ON WRITING (probably one of my top 3 favorite writing resource books, by the way), where he talks about the question "What if?" as being key to creating story ideas. Great advice, but I still had trouble translating it into real practice. How do you ask "What if?" if you don't even have someplace to start?

We're told all the time to "write what you know." Well, I've always rejected that notion. If I only wrote what I knew, you guys'd get real sick of stories on how to get stains out of shirts and what I'm cooking for dinner tonight. Instead, I've always thought you should write what you want to know, but start with what you know.

So I sat down, combined writing what you know with Stephen King's What If, and figured up a formula that I could use to pound out a story idea when desperate. It goes like this:

What I know + What I Wonder + And Then What = Story

In other words, I start with what I know. Add Stephen King's all-important What If. And keep adding those What Ifs until I can't answer the question anymore.

For HATE LIST, it would look something like this.

School shootings happen (What I know) + What would happen if someone stopped the shooting in progress? (What I wonder) + What if the person who stopped the shooting was in love with the shooter? (And Then What) + What if she saved the life of an enemy? (And Then What) + What if she and the former enemy worked together to make a change for healing in their school (And Then What) = HATE LIST!

Probably the genre I most often use my formula with, however, is humor writing. Almost every week the column I've written is the direct result of sitting down and braining out what I know and adding a bunch of what ifs and then whats.

For example, once I wrote a column about ordering coffee at Starbucks (a task I am, embarrassingly, unable to accomplish). A pretty narrow "idea," right? So what do you say? "I can't order coffee at Starbucks because I'm lame and can't figure out what all the fancy terms and words mean. The end." No, that won't work. But I can use the formula on it.

I'm a lamewad when it comes to ordering coffee at Starbucks (What I Know) + Once I stood in the middle of a Starbucks and closed my eyes and listened. I heard the sound of two chimps mating. And Chewbacca ordered a latte. (What I Wonder) + I ordered a plain cup of coffee and the manager had to fly in three therapists from Costa Rica to help the barista with her Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (And Then What) + After five years of Spanish, I can, ironically, order coffee in Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil, but not in Liberty (And Then What) = Column

If it helps to switch those What I Wonder and And Then Whats around to questions, the formula might look like this:

I'm a lamewad when it comes to ordering coffee at Starbucks (What I Know) + What would happen if I just closed my eyes and listened to other, in-the-know customers order? (What I Wonder) + I wonder what would happen if I just ordered a cup of coffee? (And Then What) + I wonder how many other places exist where I could successfully order coffee? (And Then What) = Column

When you pose your What I Wonder questions, understand that if you're writing humor, your answers to those questions are your punchlines (the place for exaggeration and silliness). If you're writing fiction, the answers to What I Wonder questions will be... your plot.

I know formulas aren't very romantic and certainly don't scream creative abandon. They're not nearly as mystical as a single word (Montana) creating a story. Not nearly as poetic as a trigger song ("If Everyone Cared") or poem inspiring a long piece of work. Not as fun as writers groups. But, believe me, the formula works when you're fresh out of mystical, poetic, and fun. I have three years' worth of columns to prove it!

Now go out there and get all theoremy on someone's ass!

Nov. 18th, 2009

Writers Group Wednesday: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Although I've belonged to several writing groups over the years, both online and in person, I actually have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, I think it's very difficult to find a group of "writers" who are all equally excited about writing, while at the same time not being smug and self-important... but on the other hand, I've gotten some really good story ideas through my writers groups.

For example, my sole surviving online writers group (five ladies from literally around the globe, writing together for... wow, I guess about 9 years now) recently issued a challenge to take on a particular member's story idea, in whatever form is most comfortable to us (short story, chapter of a novel, etc.) and send it around to one another for inspiration and comment. Cool! Writing practice!

Another online writers group I once belonged to included a Monday check-in every week. One of my Monday check-in posts was actually the roots of the essay that won me the first Erma Bombeck award.

My live writers group (which dissolved several months ago when three key members decided to take major non-writing paths in their lives) used to hold Saturday Slams, where we filled a bowl with slips of paper, each of which containing a writing suggestion. We'd sit around the table, pull out a random slip, write for 10 minutes, read aloud for 5 mintues, and do it all again, over and over for two hours. These were my favorite of all our meetings, because I always came away with several beginnings or promising ideas I felt I could use in a future story.

For example, the writing suggestion, "Love Is," at one of those slams, inspired THIS BLOG.

And another suggestion -- "Write about an umbrella" -- turned up the beginning of the novel I'm currently working on (a grown-up novel, by the way):

Of all days to forget my umbrella, today wins the award for Worst by a Gazillion Miles.

For starters, it was the first day in about six months that it didn’t just look like it was going to rain, but went ahead and did it. The weathermen were probably all out popping corks at Bucky’s because they were all, for a change, right about the rain. Although I guess it stands to reason that if you predict rain every day for long enough eventually you’ll be right. Of course, that would be true if you predicted bowling balls, too. If you stood on a street corner every day for like, your whole life, saying “The bowling balls are coming today,” somewhere someone would drop a load of bowling balls off a truck and somewhere nearby would be a weatherman saying, “See? It’s all about the science.”

Anyway, so it was raining, which made the walk from my apartment front door to my office front door thirteen blocks away something like a fully-clothed shower, which would normally suck in and of itself, but today…it was Suck times a thousand. Like having your annual viewed by a class of interns kind of suck. Like one of those interns being your cousin Jerry. That kind of suck.

Not that it surprised me to have a cousin-Jerry-in-the-nether-regions sort of Suck day, because that’s about all I’d had ever since I lost my Elvis bracelet.

Yeah, I know. I’m not really all about The King, either. But I had this bracelet that I found at a garage sale on my first trip back home for like, 50¢. I bought it because it had this really cool retro telephone charm on it and because it jangled when I moved my arm. Then I found out that the bracelet was worth way more than 50¢ the very same day I got the job at Fager Studios and next thing you know my 50¢ charm bracelet became my good luck charm.

I don’t know when or where I might have lost it. After searching two solid days for it, I determined that the clasp must have fallen off while I was out. I gave up, which really stunk. No bracelet = No good luck = No umbrella.

Right. The umbrella. I forgot it...

So despite my occasional misgivings about writers groups in general, I'm going to give them props for being a source of inspiration for me.

Nov. 17th, 2009

Trigger Tuesday: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

It's Day Two of Where Do You Get Your Ideas week, and I'm really excited about this one, because I get to talk about Hate List and am even going to post a little snippet of a chapter for you.

In some ways, this idea-generating method is very similar to the Montana Monday method I described yesterday, where a single name created such a strong a character in my head, the character actually created the story.

But where Trigger Tuesday is different is that I'm using the story in a poetic piece of writing to trigger a story of my own.

The first two sentences in Hate List are the following:

"We'll show the world they were wrong

And teach them all to sing along."

You may, of course, recognize that as the Nickelback song, "If Everyone Cared." And you may have heard me say before that in many ways that song was the inspiration behind Hate List.

Well, I don't know if it was so much "inspiration" as it was "trigger," in that the story told in the song triggered a story in my head. I could almost "see" the young lovers in this song as I listened to it, and was overcome with such a strong image of who they were and what they wanted, I simply had to write it down. What resulted was a story of two outcast kids who, when alone, wanted the world to be different. Kids who, at their heart, were glad to be alive and hopeful to make changes.

First, read the lyrics of "If Everyone Cared" here.
As you read the lyrics, try to envision the story in your head. See the two lovers staring at the stars. Feel their pain. Their desire. Their feeling of invincibility. It's not just a song; it's a story. Or at least the beginning of one.

You can actually "see" the scene that the song evoked in my mind in Hate List. Check out the following snippet:

Nick reached out and grabbed my hand, leading me to the field behind my house. We found a clearing and sprawled on our backs in the grass, looking at the stars, talking about... anything, everything.

"You know why we get along so well, Val?" he asked after a whille. "Because we think just alike. It's like we have the same brain. It's cool."

I stretched, wrapping my leg around his. "Totally," I said. "Screw our parents. Screw their stupid fights. Screw everybody. Who gives a shit about them?"

...He turned to face me, propping himself up on an elbow. "it's good that we have each other," he said. "It's like, you know, even if the whole world hates you, you still have someone to rely on. Just the two of you against the whole world. Just us."

At the time, my thoughts had been so consumed with Mom and Dad and their incessant arguing, I'd just assumed we were talking about them. Nick knew exactly what I was going through -- he called his stepdad Charles his "Step du Jour" and talked about his mom's ever-changing love life as if it were some big joke. I'd had no idea he might have meant us against... everyone. "Yeah. Just us," I'd answered. "Just us."

It's not terribly unusual for a writer to use a piece of poetry or a song lyric or other piece of writing to trigger a story all their own. Poetic pieces are so full of imagery, it's almost easy to see the scene set, and very tempting to "finish" the story as you see it playing out.

Think of the songs or poems that most move you. The songs that tease up that little lump in your throat, bring tears to your eyes, make you think about things deep and feeling. Probably there's a story in that song for you. Probably you should tell it.

Nov. 16th, 2009

Montana Monday: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I don't know about all writers, but I would guess a fair share of us get this question every once in a while (try every single time someone finds out we write):

Where do you get your ideas?

And I would guess we all answer that question differently, because it makes sense to me that the creative process is just a tiny bit different from writer to writer, and maybe (as is the case for me) from project to project. Sometimes the ideas just come to us; sometimes we have to search them out. Sometimes they come to us in bits and pieces, needing a little glue. Others, they just pop up whole.

So I thought it'd be fun to give some insight into how my creative process works. Show you a few techniques on how I got some story ideas, which is why I'm declaring this week Where Do You Get Your Ideas week. Today is Montana Monday, where I'll show how sometimes one word will kick off an idea for me.

I was leading a workshop for teens a few weeks ago, and in my group of 8th graders, a couple of the girls mentioned another girl by name: Montana.

"Is that your name?" I asked, the class coming to a screeching halt.

She nodded.

"What a beautiful name," I said.

"Thanks," she said, blushing and kind of sinking down into her chair, which was my cue to leave the poor girl alone and move on with teaching the class how to do character sketches.

But before getting back on topic, I quickly blurted out, "I'm totally going to steal your name." And then I moved on.

And I came home and wrote this:

We always thought Montana's parents were too dumb to understand the irony of their daughter's name. Figured they fell in love on a mountain or something and when their bouncing baby girl arrived, it just sounded good to name her after romance. Cute, even. So I figured they named her something big and foreboding out of ignorance.

Everybody knew she was born weeks early, coming fast and determined, all two and a half pounds of her, in the very back acre of the family pumpkin farm where her mom had been filling the back of a tractor with pie pumpkins. Screamed into the world all wrapped up in vines, taking her throne as Queen of Halloween. Or at least that's how I imagined it. I wasn't there. Obviously.

Two and a half pounds. Seemed like at her size, Montana should've been named something smaller and more fragile. Like Lacey or Sprite or Pebbles. But, nope. They gave her a giant of a name.

Montana was no mountain. But she was earthy and dark-eyed. Like someone who should wear corduroys and fibrous sweaters year-round. Like someone who could tell a bird by its song or a tree by its bark or a city girl by the way she squealed when stepping in a cowpie. A girl who ate biscuits with gravy on them instead of salads with dressing on the side. A girl who liked the smell of dirt and the feel of snow on her cheeks. A girl who knew how quiet it gets at night in the country, and who liked it when the silence was occasionally broken by the shrill screams of an animal meeting a predator somewhere out in the fields.

It never occurred to us that her parents were well-aware of the irony of their tiny daughter's name. That they knew, just by looking at her red, screaming baby face, smeared with pumpkin seeds and dirt, that she was going to be a mountain of a girl. A wall of granite. Hard. Dark. Immovable.

But after she did what she did... and after their reaction... it was clear. They knew exactly who Montana was from the day she was born.

It's rough, for sure, but it feels like a beginning to me. Where would the story go from here? Well, it about could go anywhere. She could win an Olympic medal in weightlifting or go on a killing spree. She could lead a campaign for human rights in a foreign country or become the toughest judge in the county.

The important part was getting off the starting block. And all it took was a name that stood out to me in a Saturday morning workshop. This name came with a character attached, and the story will follow her. Sometimes that's all it takes to get a story started: a single word. I just had to be tuned in enough to recognize that word and go with it.

And no matter what I have this poor girl do in the story she'll eventually end up in... I still think her name's beautiful!

Nov. 13th, 2009

Do You Need to Go to College to Be a Writer? Well, No, But...

It never fails. Every time I talk to a group of teens, I get asked if I went to college to be a writer. And when I tell them, no, my major was Psychology and I only took the minimum required amount of English classes, they follow up with, "Well, then, do you need to go to college at all to be a writer?"

Ah, how do I answer that question? Personally, I feel that most if not all of my writing skills are skills that I had mastered by the time I left high school. Some of them I had probably mastered in elementary school. Most I had mastered by being a constant reader throughout my entire life. And, yes, some are just... there.

But if I'm being honest, there are also non-writing skills I learned in college that come in very handy in a writing career. For example, research skills. And organizational skills. And the ability to finish long projects. Responsibility. And maturity. Just happened that several of my college courses, especially toward my senior year, were Independent Study courses, which basically means you create your course and are pretty much on your own throughout the entire semester. This taught me a lot about time management and scheduling. It also taught me how to find answers myself and how to know when to seek help from someone else who has the answers I need when I can't find them.

Not to mention there's the confidence gained in college, and self-reliance -- both important when it comes to being an introvert stuck in a career that requires much extroversion -- and also the opportunity to have your work critiqued, sometimes harshly. And then there are the books read in college -- the great literature in addition to other textbooks which give you a working knowledge in a broad range of subjects. Who knows when you might want to write a book that makes references to, say... Calculus? (don't say never; it might happen)

So, yes, college is useful to a writer... even if you're not majoring in writing.

But what if you didn't go to college? Or what if, like me, you went to college, but you majored in something other than English?

It's true, when you step into the writing world, you feel a bit behind the curve. There's so much to learn! So many tricks of the trade and written and unwritten rules about submitting and publishing and writing for various genre (genres? This is a sheep/sheeps thing. I never know what the plural should be), you feel like you'll never catch up. I get a lot of emails from adults who want to write, but don't know where to begin. And it's made even tougher by the fact that, while you're learning, you're not getting paid a penny.

When I first began trying to figure out this writing thing, I whined to The Hub about the fact that all I was ever getting was rejections and that it'd been months (years?) since I'd gotten a paycheck, and surely this was insanity, working so diligently with no monetary reward.

"I have a degree, for goodness sake," I'd say. "I should be out there earning money."

That's when The Hub gave me some of the best writing advice I've ever gotten:

"You're not in the job market yet," he said, "because you're still in school. Consider this your graduate program. You're not earning credits, but the knowledge you're gaining now will result in you getting a career in writing just the same."

He was right.

I started studying writing as if I were in a college course. I read (and examined closely) literature. I read more books on how-to write, how-to submit, how-to prepare a manuscript than I can count. I took online courses and asked questions. I wrote and submitted and learned from rejections. I went to conferences and workshops and picked up ideas.

I went to school.

So my best advice to teens who want to be writers is... yes, you should go to college and learn the things that writers need to know, even if it's not, technically, writing. And to adults who want to be writers but didn't study writing in college... create your own graduate class. Go after it doggedly. Treat it like you're being graded.

In a way, you are: Pass or Fail. You either break in or you don't.

Now, go study!

Sep. 8th, 2009

The Calm After the Storm

Last week was a week like none other I'd ever experienced. I knew it would be wild, and tons of work, but I really had no idea the brand of crazy it was going to be. Good crazy, but crazy just the same.

I thought surely by the end of the week I'd be one giant ulcer, unable to put a full sentence together my hair white and fingernails chewed with worry. So it began to feel like the Best Idea Ever to just... get away. So I did.


I unplugged. Packed a couple pairs of shorts and a swimsuit in a backpack. Grabbed the Hub, the kids, the tents, and the bug spray, and headed south to Noel, Missouri. The laptop stayed home. The cell phone stayed off. I didn't check my Facebook, didn't update my status, didn't obsessively check my Amazon sales rank, didn't tweet once.

I did a lot of looking into a fire contemplatively. Riding in a car silently (came up with a new story idea that I'm dying to pursue!). Laughing with friends. Paddling a raft down the Elk River. Swimming with the tadpoles and crawfish and, yes, even the leeches in said river.

My friends seemed to sense that I needed a break from it all. We only had one (very short) conversation about the book. We didn't talk projects or signings or writing at all.

Gah, it was wonderful!

And now I'm back, and I'm totally recharged. I'm dying to get some fiction-writing in. I'm motivated to work on promoting Hate List some more. I'm psyched for a some workshops I'm leading this weekend.

Sometimes the calm after the storm is all you need to be ready to face the whipping wind and the pelting rain and the thunder and lightning when it comes back again. Bring it on, baby!

Sep. 3rd, 2009

My Very First Book Signing!!!

Last night was my very first book signing, and it was such fun! The crowd snaked through KC indie, Rainy Day Books, and out the door onto the sidewalk! We ran out of books, and thank goodness once again for the Debs, who taught me to always bring extra books to a signing. I'd brought all of my author copies, and had Hub running out to the van to bring them in so we didn't have to turn anyone away.

My family made a great showing, as did the ladies from Mom2MomKC.com, and even some neighbors drove all the way from the Northland, caravan-style, to support me (Northland neighbors, you get extra love for making the trip!).

A couple people brought gifts, and my agent sent flowers, but the best gift of all was just seeing my book in a bookstore and knowing that it's all REAL!

Here are some photos:



Signing my very first book at my very first book signing...



My first customer was a Mom2Mom friend. How cool is that?!



With my long-time writer friend and winner of the 2009 Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award (fiction), Nancy Pistorius



The crowd was awesome! And, of course, the family made a great showing! Thanks, Mom! Thanks, Dad!



I can't wait to do this again!

Sep. 2nd, 2009

Lookit! Lookit! LookawhatIgot!

Hub brought me a shiny new present:

Everybody knows that any present that comes in a Mickey Mouse tubey boxy thingy is gonna be good.

So I opened the box and

*GASP!!!* It's a pen! A shiny, bee-yoo-ti-shush faboo BOOK SIGNING PEN! And just in time for my very first book signing!!!

*strokes the top of Hub's head*

Good Hub. Such a good Hub.

Aug. 31st, 2009

Hate List: The Playlist

One question I've been asked a lot is what songs I would include on a HATE LIST playlist. The truth is, music and creativity are so intertwined in me, there really was a "soundtrack" of HATE LIST going through my mind during the writing process, and even beyond. Below is the unofficial soundtrack of HATE LIST, and the songs that inspired the story, kept me writing, and even reminded me of the story after it was written.

Create a playlist at MixPod.com

1) "If Everyone Cared" by Nickelback -- This was the song that inspired HATE LIST, with the simple lyric, "Amen, I... I'm alive."

2) "Love Story" by Taylor Swift -- For the obvious references to Romeo and Juliet, which is how I saw Valerie and Nick from the beginning.

3) "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult -- Even though my first thought is "cowbell," my second is that it helped bring Nick's thoughts clearer to me... and also that I grew up loving this song.

4) "World Full of Hate" by Dropkick Murphies -- Mainly because I just love the song. And do "corrected mistakes in a world full of hate" really change anything? Hmmm (I think so!)...

5) "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley -- Ran through my head on a loop while writing the hospital and therapy scenes.

6) "I Am a Rock" by Simon & Garfunkel -- Come on, just read the lyrics. That's Val, through and through. ...Or is it?

7) "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day -- Ahhh, I love Green Day, and it was, admittedly, a very tight race between this song and "Jesus of Suburbia" for the playlist.

8) "If I Ever Leave this World Alive" by Flogging Molly -- Because Nick and Val were Flogging Molly fans!

9) "Untitled" by Simple Plan -- Because Teen Goddess, after reading HATE LIST, declared this Valerie's theme song.

10) "Haunted" by Kelly Clarkson -- Lyrics so perfectly suited to HATE LIST it almost freaks me out a little.

11) "Let it Be" by The Beatles -- Because... well... the part about "broken-hearted people"... isn't that sort of what it's all about?

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