Saturday, November 22, 2008

Think, think, think...

Inspiration for me is a funny little thing. Sometimes you're so desperate for an idea, but no matter how hard you try, no matter how many books you read, movies you watch, conversations you overhear...nothing happens. It just seems as though nothing wants to click. Nothing wants to seed itself in your brain and take root. There are also times when an amazing story just seems to fall into your lap, and yet despite its apparent brilliance you just can't seem to cultivate it. You twist it and turn it around in your mind for days, but for whatever the reason (maybe it's just not your story to tell) nothing comes from it.

My favorite time is when inspiration hits. It comes in the oddest places and at the most peculiar times. It can come in the middle of the night from a dream, or from the back of a milk carton on the breakfast table. But when it comes and in whatever form it takes, it's the most amazing feeling. It almost begins to bubble and burst forth in your brain, and no matter how hard you try to put it out of your head it just keeps creeping in. In a matter of hours you have plot, subplot, characters, character vices, everything you need to make a good book. That's the easy part. The story in your head is so easy to tell. It's right there on the tip of your tongue, but getting it onto paper is quite another thing.

My inspiration usually comes at quiet times in my life, when I'm least expecting it. I'll be watching a show and suddenly something that flashes on the screen will leap into my head and begin to evolve. It can be as mundane and odd as the red dress on a woman in a tampax commercial. I don't question Lady Inspiration, I just go with it. It's the most exhilarating part of writing for me. It's almost like falling in love. You feel elated and joyful. It really is an intoxicating feeling.

I wish I had a recipe for inspiration. The ability to know what needs to be added here and what pinch of this needs to be thrown in there, just to create that "I've got a great idea" moment. I think it really just comes from being open and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to a wide variety of emotions and experiences. You can't look for inspiration or formulate it, you just have to let it find you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Labor of Love

Recently, I got to e-chat about the idea of inspiration with a few other writers. I’m going to be doing a panel at The Tucson Festival of Books in March with Janette Rallison and Jill Wolfson. The three of us have never met, but the festival organizer paired us up and told us to come up with a topic. Jill Wolfson suggested we do something based off of the quote by Edison, that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Not that we are geniuses, she clarified, but because of the fact that writing is also 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

I’d never really thought about it before, but I realized she was absolutely right, at least, in my case. I have an abundance of ideas. They come to me in dreams, in the shower, while I’m driving. My inspiration usually hits as a hypothetical. What if X happened? How would this change the characters’ lives? What kind of havoc would this reek or drama would this cause? The ones that I like I write down. Usually on the back of a bill on my desk that I manage to then promptly bury under a pile of something and lose. But if they are good enough, they stick with me nonetheless.

Right now I’m working on an adult book, that I started about a month ago. Actually, let me clarify, I was working on different adult book that I started back in August. I had a great idea, an inspiration, if you will, that came to me in the middle of the night: the perfect first scene and two interesting characters. But I got about 50 pages in and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. As much as I wanted to sit down and write the book, I found myself reading and rereading what I’d already written and waiting for inspiration to strike to tell me where to take things. Then it did, though not for this particular book. A series of random and seemingly mundane things happened one Friday, and when I was telling my neighbor about them, she said something that caused a spark, a new hypothetical. Suddenly, I was inspired to start over with a new idea.

Was I upset about the 50 pages I’d already spent weeks toiling over? Well, to be honest, a little. But I was also excited about my new idea; I felt I could really make this work, and if I'm going to put in hours and hours and hours of writing, I want it to be on something that I feel will be a fabulous finished product. Besides, it’s also part of what I’ve come to accept as a writer -- no matter how great your initial inspiration is, it really doesn’t mean much on its own. You can’t sell your inspiration. (Well, maybe some writers can, but I’m certainly not at this point!)

So how do I get from that inspiration to completed manuscript? It's something I'm in the middle of right now, and it's work. Lots of it. Writing is an amazing job, and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to do it. But it is a job nonetheless. And not an ordinary job. I can never leave work and come home and forget about it. My characters do not exit my head at 5 PM to return again at 9 the next morning. They are with me. All the time. (Today, for instance, my main character popped into my head while I was in Target and said something I know will be a crucial line near the end of the book.) At night, unlike my friends who put their children to bed and then get to watch TV, clean the house, or go to sleep, I spend a few hours writing and revising. And sometimes, I even dream about my characters.

So yeah, getting inspired is great. Exciting, even. But there are light years between this initial inspiration and a novel. The other 99%, the thinking, writing, revising? I do it because, for me, writing is a labor of love. But that doesn’t keep me from sweating through it all the same.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Believe In Writing What You Know

My inspiration comes from real people, real events, and real places I’ve visited. I, like Maureen, try to carry a little pad in my purse and yes, most of my receipts have notes spattered all over the back of them, too. Just the other day, my dear friend Kathy (who is also my next door neighbor) said something that I found hilarious. We were standing in her kitchen when I yelled, “Wait, get me a piece of paper!” It was a great line regarding something that had recently happened to me. I'm definitely working it into my second book. Somehow I already know it will fit perfectly when I get to a certain scene.

I fully believe in the old adage about writing what you know. Once I start writing a character, he or she usually has a hodgepodge of traits taken from my own imagination or something I found particularly delightful about someone I’ve met personally or someone I’ve only heard about. I’m one of these writers who finds the very best humor in real life, so I take a certain situation that has a funny element and build from there.

For instance in my novel, Whistlin’ Dixie In A Nor’easter, I have a character named Jeb Duggar who is the handyman at The Vermont Haus Inn. He only works there on the side, really, because his real job is proprietor of Jeb’s Computer World. He’s a typical Vermonter, a.k.a a woodchuck, who has a burly beard and a big handlebar mustache. (I knew lots of men who could fit that description when I lived in Vermont.) One day here in Franklin, I was driving to work and saw one of those pink Mary Kay cars parked at an apartment complex. I got the idea to have Jeb share one of those cars with his mother, who has her Mary Kay business in big letters on the passenger side door and Jeb’s own business, JCW, painted on the driver’s side. Just the thought of that big ole burly guy driving a rusted-out pink Chevy Chevette, put a smile on my face.

The personalities of the girlfriends in my book are an amalgam of my closest friends. The fun part about that is, we’ve been friends since we were five, and I have a rich bank of memories to weave into all my stories.

On a practical note, when starting a novel, I have made suggestions to myself on note cards. I scratch them out as I go, but almost inevitably the book takes it’s own path once I’ve gotten past the first thirty pages or so. I wish I could boast of a certain method to this literary madness but alas, I’m a bit of a hodgepodge myself, with a jumble of ideas and techniques that propel me towards the finish line.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Brainstorming Bag Lady

My book ideas sometimes start with a single scene. For my upcoming book, A Bump in the Road, it started with an image of a hungover couple flying home from Vegas and being tortured a toddler. A scene many people can relate to, in one fashion or another. The humor potential was endless, but I started to think, "What if this is the ironic setup for a life change for these two poor souls?" And thus, a fictional unplanned pregnancy was created.

But really, there’s no "one way" my ideas come to me. Sometimes, it’s from a funny story one of my coworkers tells me. Or maybe it’s a story in the newspaper. See, I usually start my books with only a vague idea of what they’ll be about. Most times, I just start writing. So little snippets of news events, anecdotes from friends, and even bickering between my husband and I can lead to entire plot twists.

One thing I have really noticed since I started seriously pursuing a writing career is that my brainstorming antenna is always set to "on" now. Before, I’d hear interesting conversations or observe quirky people and they’d fly out of my head two seconds after they entered. But now, everything becomes fair game. Thus, the reason why I’m usually digging frantically through my purse for a piece of paper and a pen to write down my "genius" idea. This is also why lots of my notes are written on the back of McDonald’s receipts (or other trash littering my purse) in eyeliner pencil.

If you can’t tell, it’s a somewhat chaotic way to write a book. Truth be told, I wish I could be one of those people who has a roadmap from the very beginning, someone whose brainstorming is one complete step before beginning a novel instead of some weird hybrid of writing and plotting all at once. But I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t feel right.

So, if you ever see a red-haired woman crazily scribbling on the side of her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with a teeny-tiny golf pencil while waiting at a stoplight, it’s probably me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Do You Get Your Ideas?

That's a question writers are asked all the time. For me, a story idea can happen while I'm watching TV, driving my car, reading the paper, talking to a friend, or even when I'm asleep. Thinking of story ideas is never the issue, as a new one is always crawling in my brain when I least expect it.

They usually come to me in a "What if" question, followed by a "Why?". Things like, "What if two women are in the airport and decide to switch tickets? Why would they want to do this? What are they each running/hiding/wanting to get away from?"

That particular idea came to me while sitting in an airport in Dallas. I realized, quite suddenly, that once you're past security, no one checks your ticket against your ID again--which means two people could switch tickets and fly under each other's names. If they chose to. But while it's a great idea, and I've already started the story, there's SO MUCH MORE I need to know.

Many of my initial ideas arrive half-baked. Some of them aren't meant to build a book around, but maybe just one scene within the book, and others need time to grow into something more. So, what do I do if pluck one of these ideas out of my file (and yes, I keep a file), but it needs more work? In a word: Brainstorm.

I brainstorm with other writers. This, by the way, doesn't always happen at the beginning of a book. It can happen throughout the writing of the book--maybe I've hit a wall, or need something else to happen, or maybe I can take the story in a couple of different ways and I'm not sure which one is the right one.

Regardless, brainstorming allows me to talk it out to someone else. I'll be honest--most of the time, I don't end up using whatever plot points my brainstorming buddies come up with, but the process seems to loosen my creative energy, and help me find exactly the right answer I need. Though, there are definitely instances whereI've used a plot point or characterization idea and ran with it.

The great thing about brainstorming is it goes both ways. When my writer friends have a problem, they call me, and I talk it out with them. In addition, my local writing group has a full weekend each year devoted to brainstorming, where we talk about multiple books, plots, characters, motivation, and everything and anything each of us needs to get writing.

So while I don't have problems with inspiration (at least not yet, thank goodness), I would be lost without brainstorming. It's an integral part of every book I write--whether I do it on my own, with a friend, or with my writing group.