The Writers Circle: Seeking Inspiration

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all have our favorite places to write, whether it’s a special spot at home, a specific corner table in the nearby coffee shop, the non-fiction stacks at the local library or a grassy hill overlooking a quiet lake.  What places inspire you to write and where do you go when you need a place that you can just keep writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

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Looking for Inspiration

I often hear writers say they aren’t inspired or can’t think of a story.  Inspiration is all around us, just look and be willing to ask a few questions.  Read the news, listen to friends’ stories, or think about something that happened to you. For example:

A couple of days ago I was frustrated with my computer.  More that normally frustrated.  You see, I was in a hurry to get something done at work when the weekly software update message popped up on my screen and wouldn’t let me continue until I clicked, NOT NOW!  Yesterday the same thing happened with my cell phone as I went to check my voicemail, “A new version of iOS is available, install now, install later.”  Okay it only took 15 seconds to click 10 times to get rid of the popup so I could get to listen to my voice mail.

Maddening.  Yes, I could go through and maybe silence all those, but some, like the ones my IT department at work forces on me just will never go away and will continue to popup at exactly the wrong moment.  What really got me thinking was this what if question, “What if I were in a space ship when ground control sent a software update?”

Or, what if my spaceship’s computer decided it was time to download and install a major software update just as I am landing on Mars?

A few years ago my local marquetry club had a guest speaker give a class on designing.  He stepped us through some design processes, gave us some tips and did a few design exercises.  One exercises was to take two very different things and see if you could combine them into one thing.

For example, take a giraffe and a toaster.  Now design something.  What I came up with is the Giroaster.  The finished concept is a toaster, with a light and a recipe holder. Okay, I added the recipe holder, but I needed something for the giraffe necked light to shine on that would make sense next to a toaster.

No, I haven’t solved the problem of toaster occasionally setting the recipes on fire.

Let me give you another example.  Let’s say you want to write a crime story that features an arson.  Are you an expert on arson?  I am not, but I’ve got a story to tell about an arson.  30 years ago I took a real estate sales class thinking that selling houses could be a career choice.  It wasn’t a good choice for me, but I heard an interesting story.  A man in our class owned a house that he rented out to a woman.  Over time the woman proved to be a bit mentally unstable and she stopped paying her rent, so he sent an eviction notice.  Shortly after the notice was delivered he got a call from a neighbor saying that they’d just called the fire department as people were smelling a strong chemical smell from the house.

When the man arrived the fire captain told him that someone had put pots of turpentine on the stove and they were starting to boil when his crew showed up.

It was a cautionary tale about a mentally ill person bent on destruction.  In this story everything turned out fine as the woman was quickly located, charged, convicted and sent away for a long time in a mental hospital.

Given those facts, could you build a story?  Let’s ask some basic questions:

  • What kind of man would own a rental home?
  • Why was the man taking a class in real estate sales?
  • What was the man’s relationship with the neighbors?
  • Why did the neighbors have his phone number?
  • How did the arsonist convince the man to rent her the house?
  • What other arsons had she done and why?
  • What kind of mental problems did she have?
  • What would happen to a pot of boiling turpentine on a gas stove? On an electric stove?

I am thinking that you could come up with a lot more questions to ask and in the end come up with an interesting story.  Perhaps something like this:

A man named Bob recently was laid off from his job as manager at a local restaurant.  His mother had recently died and left him her home.  A local real estate broker convinces Bob to rent it out and get a real estate license so Bob could work for the broker.  Needing a tenant for the property, he advertises and finds Sue, a 29 year-old who has just moved to the area and has a job with a local chemical supply company.  Little does Bob know that Sue killed a lover in another city by setting a house on fire.  Sue turns out to be a one woman crime wave (possible she’s involved with the drug trade which has taken a toll on her mind). And of course the neighborhood knows the fine young boy, Bob, who came to see his mother and their friend every Sunday afternoon.  So sad about Bob’s divorce just after losing his job and his mother dying.

So, just go get inspired.  Remember stories from your past.  Take two unrelated things and put them together, or think about what annoys you.

But mostly, just keep asking, “what if?” And keep writing.

The Writers Circle: Preparing for the Year That Will Be

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Today is the first Monday of 2016 and today we will discuss our writing and creative plans for the coming year. Do you have big changes in mind for 2016? Do you have strict or loose goals for what or how much you are writing? How do you define your goals and how do you keep yourself to them as the year progresses?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Writers Circle: The Creative Spark

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Several of the posts on Today’s Author this month have focused on creativity. Today we’d like to hear from you about ways you kick start your creativity. Do you take a long walk on a snowy day? Do you sit in a coffee shop and people watch?  Do you dig in the dirt to see what you find to write about?  What methods do you use to find a bit of a creative spark when you need a new idea or just want to write something new?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

A Change in Perspective

logs

Logs in my yard

Continuing on from my post last week in which I suggested we should try taking a look around us and just write a scene with whatever pops into view first, I have another simple experiment we can do to try to kick start our creativity for 2015. I have used this strategy a lot, actually, when I want to brainstorm or try to generate new ideas.

The concept is simple:

  1. Find an object in your yard, in the room, in the parking lot, or wherever you might be.  Note what it is.  For example, I’m currently looking at a round slice from a tree that was cut down.
  2. Now, in your mind or on paper, think of this object as we perceive it today and describe it and how it is used, where it came from, what it smells like, tastes like, feels like, etc.
  3. Next… say “What if…” and look at the object from a different angle.  For example, my round slice of tree could be stood on end and now it looks like a wooden wheel.  What if this wooden wheel had been part of an early vehicle? Who rode in that vehicle? What was the ride like? What did the passengers in the vehicle talk about?  Where did this wheel take them?
  4. Repeat step 3.  What if my slice of tree was actually a pedestal from the Town Center and had a history of people standing upon it and delivering famous speeches? What if it was one of many tables at a neutral meeting place where peace treaties, political alliances and other major decisions were negotiated?  What if secret messages were encoded in the rings, like some sort of wooden record?

You can do this with anything.  Take any ordinary object and change your perspective on it.  You can use your camera and take a picture of an object, then pull that picture into photo editing software and change the colors, the backgrounds, the contrast.  Invert the colors or apply a sepia filter to it (or both).  Perhaps rotate it 90 degrees in one direction or another.  When you change the perspective, even just a little bit, the whole object becomes new and different. What new stories will you tell about an old, ordinary thing?

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Looking for the Idea Lost and Found

It never fails.  I’m running on the treadmill or mowing the lawn or standing in the shower…and an idea for a story comes to me.  Not just “an idea”, but The Greatest Idea Ever.  The Idea which would lead to the best new novel/poem/story/script ever imagined ever!

It happened again this morning, the idea coming to me as I finally got my aching muscles loosened up after a long weekend of abusing them.  The idea was so simple, so perfect… it was going to write itself.  I had opening lines, the number of chapters, the main characters all there in my mind.  I kept going over the idea as the machine counted my steps and I was sure I’d get home and be able to transcribe it.

I got home, fired up the laptop, went to wake the children, took care of the dishes, let the dog out, fed the cats, watered the plants, started the coffee, drove the teenagers to school, updated the grocery list, sorted through some laundry issues, wrote a couple checks for school events…  When I finally sat down at the laptop, the idea — my perfect, amazing, fantastic, almost-going-to-write-itself idea– was gone.

Obviously, we can all see my mistake here: I shouldn’t have come home.  But getting past that, I sit here and wonder how many ideas have come and gone simply because Life with a capital L demands that we prioritize work, school, kids,  paying the bills, etc. above all else.  I certainly wish I could just close my eyes and do a Bing search in my brain to find that idea which just this morning felt like it was The One.  If there’s an idea lost and found, I’m sure it is full of stories that have not yet been told but are there just waiting for someone to reclaim them.

It’s funny or sad or…something…  I never put pen to paper on this story that came to me this morning. Never really got to know the characters or their world. And yet, the feeling of loss is big because they are gone.  I mean, they’re still “in there” somewhere, but the whole thing is out of reach.  On the good side of the ledger, it’s been a long time since I felt like a creative idea that good was there for me.  Now I just need to find it again and hope that it’s while I’ve got a laptop or a pen or my phone nearby.

What tricks or methods do you use to help remember ideas that come to you when you simply cannot record them immediately? I’d love to hear what works for you.

 

The Writers Circle: When Inspiration Doesn’t Strike

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Writers often experience times where the ideas just aren’t flowing well (or at all).  Today we’d like to discuss how you have dealt with these droughts and what you did or do to break out of them when they occur. Do you sit at the computer and just write… anything… to get the words flowing?  Do you change media and write by hand for a while? Do you go out to a different coffee shop to seek inspiration?  Let’s discuss what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what you might consider trying the next time you encounter a bump in the creative road. 

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Who Is That Person?

It is 5:31am on a Thursday morning and I am sitting in my local Starbucks.  I’ve already been to the gym, I’ve already kicked off a process that will take some time at work and I’m part-way through my first cup of coffee of the day. But more importantly, I have my laptop open and on it I have my “Writer’s File”, as Annie described it yesterday, open. I’m sitting here, watching people come in and out. I’m listening to what they order, sure, but more importantly I’m listening to how they order.  If they come in with someone else, I’m listening to how they interact with each other.

My little Writer’s File has been neglected for a while. It is a bit of a mess, really.  But today, it’s getting a lot of new character information, such as:

  • The businesswoman who forgot to remove her sunglasses when she came in, and just walked into another customer she appears not to have seen.  Did she stay out partying last night and the sunglasses are masking that look from her eyes?  Was she up all night with a sick relative? Did she just fly in from the west coast?
  • The “regular”, who expects that whomever is behind the counter they will know what the order is… and then gets upset when there is a new barrista waiting for him to tell her what he would like this morning.  Is he like this at home and/or in the office, too?
  • The lab technician or nurse who meandered in — is she coming off her night shift or gearing up for her work day?
  • The barrista who appears to be enjoying her work today… when I commented that she seemed “peppy” today, she said, “It’s my Friday, so why wouldn’t I be peppy?”
  • The patron who is here every day with a new business venture he is trying. He’s been in construction, solar electric installations, personal fitness training, home design and sunglasses.  What is his plan today for his next business venture? Did he supply that businesswoman with her sunglasses?  Did he stop putting a logo on the side of his truck because he kept needing to change it, or is he simply designing the next logo and will put it on next week?

My coffee is nearly done and I have added a good dozen characters to my Writer’s File.  Some will never go anywhere in any of my stories, but the effort of writing them down, describing their looks, their personalities, their interaction skills and even their preferences for early-morning beverages is a good workout for my creative muscles.  And as I sit here and get to know all these strangers around me, some of whom I see every day and some I’ve seen for the first time and may never see again, I once again realize that we have as many characters available to us as there are different people in the world. Our characters should be flawed.  They should bump into other people by accident, they should have rough mornings after staying up all night.  They should have a preferred drink and a morning routine.  Not all of these details need to be included in our stories, of course, but they need to be included in our characters so that they can make our stories richer, deeper and more realistic and interesting.

So, look around you today. Write down a few notes about people you see coming and going.  Then let us know who you’ve met — who is that person you see across the way?

The Writers File

One of the most fundamental challenges a writer faces is writers block. The major concern sited is the lack of ideas to write about. For this reason, I urge all writers, seasoned or beginner, to begin a writers file — a place to store ideas, characters and phrases for the times of “idea drought”. 

Like an experienced farmer,  a seasoned writer understands the ebb and flow of the seasons, that the rains flooding with ideas, characters and plot lines can gush forth, threatening to flood the entire room, but just as quickly dry up into a searing drought which appears to have no end. Similarly, they understand that the idea of tithing– putting a little away for the leaner times or droughts which inevitably come around– is a wise move should they wish to stay in business for the long term.

Just as the GoT Starks broodily shoot stares across the room and mouth “Winter is coming”, so ought writers take heed that the spring and summertime of abundant ideas has a short span of accommodation in their life.

A writers file can take on many guises, from a tatty notebook kept stuffed in a back pack, to a high tech electronic notes system on your i-thingy. It can be a manila folio of newspaper articles, maps, a list of names, odd photos and magazine clippings of interesting faces, rooms or environments. A writers file could be a shoe box of recycled (read – stolen) movie ticket buts, menus, postcards, theatre programs and timetables from around the world. Writers love to sit in cafes, snatch dialogue from passerbys and customers, reflect and imagine what others are doing with their day and about motivation for what they are experiencing on the streetscape going by. Wise writers will continue to collect prompts, ideas and springboards for their writing, even when they are focused on a specific novel or piece; understanding that they may need their hidden gems to nudge them out of writers block one day. 

Regardless of the format in which a writers file is kept, at some point it needs to be sorted into basic areas, if only to assist pulling oneself out of writers block. Sections titled , “setting”, “characters”, “events”, “props” and “dialogue” alone might prompt some ideas to begin with, should you have nothing to start your writers file up with. Never throw away a single “thing”. Every idea, no matter how strange or unrelated it may be from your current WIP or genre, may serve a purpose in the future. Sift through your notes and collected bits to file them roughly into these sections, and make sections which are more relevant to your own needs as you go along. 

Emerging writers are encouraged to write every day. Every writer should strive to write something every day. This writing can be a simple journal, a turn of phrase, a description of an emotion or words which capture a feeling, place or character. From these small things, a novel can emerge and blossom.  Writing regularly and as a commitment to yourself and to your craft will give you confidence to explore language and shape it alongside your characters. Keeping and maintaining a writers file will ensure that the flow of abundant ideas is kept at a constant, instead of a trickle, dominated by a temperamental muse. 

Tombstone, Tori Amos, and other Inspirations

“If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun,” so Muriel Rukeyser tells us in her 1949 book The Life of Poetry. This advice resonates with me especially this month, since it is National Poetry Month. And because it is National Poetry Month, I give myself the yearly writing challenge to write 30 poems in 30 days. Which is to say that I’ve been looking for “inspiration” (fodder, really) anywhere I can get it.

I’ve talked in posts past about not always grabbing inspiration when it came to me, and because of that, losing the idea, losing the poem. Rukeyser aptly lands on the feeling I am left with after not doing justice to an idea: lost. In other words, I have not used my idea, and it has gone elsewhere. But as quickly as Rukeyser acknowledges this loss, she reminds us that there is much “to be found and begun.” I love this. It’s inspiring!

Right before April begins, I usually think about what I want to write about during my mad dash toward 30 poems. Will there be a theme? Will I write in response to something? Will I just wing it? This being the fifth year that I’ve done this, I’ve found that if I can give myself something to respond to, things go much better. I produce consistent, more cohesive work. (So, for example, one year I wrote a poem per letter from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places).

Alas, this year, I did not land on a particular topic or theme, and so am floundering a bit, which has caused me to draw on the places I have found inspiration from in the past. Here are just a few, and maybe these might spark something in your writing:

  • My personal experiences. Ok, this might seem like a no-brainer. Doesn’t much of our writing spring from our experiences? Still, in recent years, I have tried to stay away from confessional type poetry, because I get bored of myself, plain and simple. I can only write so many thwarted love poems. But this April, I’m forcing myself to think about personal experiences I haven’t written about before, experiences that perhaps have been too personal or too tender. I’m going for the jugular this month.
  • Tori Amos lyrics. Even for those of us who know and love her music, we need decoder rings to figure out her meaning. Incidentally, her lyrics remind me a bit of the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian, who writes intricate, self-referential, complicated poetry. It’s exasperating to wade through her work, and yet, I love it. This is how I feel about Tori Amos: exasperated, but intrigued. Sometimes just listening to her music or looking at her lyrics will inspire something in me; other times, I’ve tried writing a poem in her style, which means trying my hand at obfuscation, layering, strange diction choices.
  • News stories. This worked for me last night, when I was at a loss for something to write about. Finally I stumbled across a short news story about a small fire in Tombstone, AZ, the site of the infamous OK Corral gun fight. The “town too tough to die” suddenly became my muse. It had been there all along (in fact, I had just visited recently, so it was fresh in my mind), but it had to be “found” anew to use Rukeyser’s word.
  • Calendars. I believe my calendar reflects who I am, and so choosing one each year is almost a sacred act. I often save my past years’ calendars, and have used them to inspire poems. One calendar that generated a handful of poems was a collection of old-timey travel advertisements from the 1920s-1950s. The art, the scenery, the outfits of the travelers, all proved to be good fodder for poetry.
  • Finally, women. As a woman, I am sometimes appalled at the dearth of knowledge I have about influential women in our world. And so, to right this wrong, come April I go in search of women. It’s like Dominoes: I Google a woman I have heard of, perhaps a poet, and I find out about women she knew, and who influenced her, and then I write about them.

These are a few ways that I get the creative juices flowing in April. I realize that all of these topics or ideas are there, have always been there, for me to find. Returning to Rukeyser’s words, these ideas were lost, only because I had not yet used them. I can always find them again, or for the first time. I can always begin, whether it’s April or any other writing month. And so can you.