Great Ideas: Search and Find

It is a question every writer is asked at some point in their careers: “Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s become a cliché, really. Still, there are others out there suffering from writer’s block who feel their well has gone dry, so to speak. Or perhaps you’re in the middle of an ocean of ideas and don’t know which fish to bait for. Well, I’ll elaborate on some familiar answers, which in my opinion aren’t always suited for every situation.

Write about what you know.

This has been said a lot of times, and it is logical. You’re pretty much guaranteed to do well with ideas you are knowledgeable about. The situations and experiences from your own life can help provide a far more solid base upon which to build a story. Such examples can include professional experiences (Jeremy Lloyd drew on his experiences working in a department store for Are You Being Served?) or places you have visited or lived (Stephen King’s stories are often set in his home state of Maine or in Colorado, where he went on vacation once he was financially able to do so). Then there are personal hobbies and interests, which leads to the next point.

Write about what interests you.

Writing about what you know won’t be enough if passion isn’t in it. It will show in your writing if passion was absent. Interests and hobbies are a great source of ideas because the writer can share those passions through stories and perhaps spark interest in readers. Plus, your passion can compensate because you will compel yourself to drive and learn more about your passions/interests in order to write a better story. Bram Stoker spent seven years writing and developing Dracula, and he never visited Romania, where a good portion of his book his set. He drew on research and his own imagination.

So perhaps in the end, perhaps you need to draw on a combination in order to make a blend. And in my case, certainly, I need to remind myself to not stress over it, which I admit is still hard to do. I must keep hope that ideas will come, especially when I’m not looking for them.

Further Reading
  1. Adams, Jamie. Where Can You Get Story Ideas From?
  2. Aldridge, Alison. Where to find great story ideas.
  3. Elliott, Anna. Summoning the Muse at Writer Unboxed.
  4. Rodriguez, Asa. Great ideas.
  5. Zikra, Nour. How To Have Fun Writing Again | Writing Advice.
  6. Zikra, Nour. How To Brainstorm Story Ideas + Where To Get Started.

The Hero’s Journey: Departure

Anyone who’s an ardent Star Wars fan will know of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and how it influenced George Lucas. He outlines similar steps within what is known as the hero’s journey, which has been found in ancient myths, folktales, and modern fantasy/science-fiction stories. I received my copy one Christmas and poured over it, understanding these points. It’s among my recommended reads for writers! Whilst editing Mystical Greenwood, I tried thinking of the plot I was forming in terms of what Campbell outlined. In the end, I came to see the book as the Departure Phase, which consists of the Call to Adventure, Rejecting the Call, the Threshold Crossing, and the Belly of the Whale.

In my own observations of other fantasy works, I’ve seen two kinds of heroes who receive the Call to Adventure. The first is the protagonist dissatisfied with life and yearning for something more. The other is essentially the opposite, perfectly content. When creating the two brothers at the heart of this story I tried envisioning them as such. But in the end, I had to pick one to be the central hero, and that was Dermot, the one who was dissatisfied with life.

Often the mentor in fantasy is an old wizard with a long beard. Early on, I felt such a mentor at the beginning giving them the Call might be too much of a cliché, so I had that character appearing not until three quarters of the way into the book. The teenage characters instead traveled on their own and chose to do so, though there was a character who did in a way give them the Call to Adventure. But later on, I realized that scenario was not going to work. A mentor figure was needed in order for the hero and his allies to survive and be properly introduced to their world’s magic and their abilities. So that original herald was vastly reworked, evolving into the true initial mentor figure instead of my wizard.

What made me go ahead without risking cliché was that this mentor was going to be a woman. I sought to have her be an embodiment of Mother Nature, who is associated with three stages of womanhood, each of which I gave her attributes: maiden (her face), mother (her personality) and crone (her age/hair). This deviation, if you really want to call it that, shows a story doesn’t need to follow the Hero’s Journey to the letter, such as when Frodo fails the final temptation at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Changes from tradition can make the story stand out and give readers a nice twist.

I hope to continue with the Hero’s Journey in the rest of the One with Nature series, with the next book being the Initiation Phase. This month marks four years since the paperback first came out (April will be the Kindle anniversary). Please read and rate/review if you haven’t yet!

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Further Reading
  1. Winkle, Chris. The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.

Readers’ Wants

Back when I did my first blog post, I talked about what I called the “Misery Complex” (in reference to Stephen King’s famous novel), and how writers’ and readers’ wants can clash. Granted, not all fans are crazy and obsessive about authors and fictional characters, like Annie Wilkes, but there is no denying that once a story is out there, it can touch so many people in individual ways in that they feel a special connection. And as they become attached to fictional characters, it’s still important to consider their feelings. Or isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this especially in drama and TV shows, like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, with fans theorizing and predicting where the story and subplots will go or could’ve gone, along with characters, and expressing their upset when things don’t happen in a certain way. The latter is especially true when characters die, don’t end up together, or character growth just vanishes. To be fair, with killing characters, writers cannot always be hated and blamed the way they have been, especially in drama, when actors decide they want to leave and pursue other projects. It’s not always easy to explain a character’s absence once the actor leaves. There may not be actors in books, but still, it’s easier to put unwarranted blame on writers.

It’s true not everyone has a happy ending, and sometimes one bad turn can in the end lead to a good one, but is there a line that ought not to be crossed? I certainly cannot argue how upsetting it is when a story seems to building something or someone up only to not lead there at the end. When there’s an anticlimax to anything from a story line to a character arc to a romance, it is usually disappointing. I sometimes find myself imagining (not always in great detail) where things could’ve gone in a story where I felt writing was lazy. That’s what’s lead to a number of fans writing fanfiction.

But at least there’s one point on which writers and readers can agree: stories and characters matter, as does what happens to them. Nevertheless, they originate with the writers. I said in my importance of names presentation characters are the children of an author’s imagination. Well, the same can be said of stories as a whole: an author sires them, and then they venture out into the world. That’s why I firmly feel the author should have the final say in what happens in his or her work, and I’d hope readers would respect that.

But I’m not unfeeling towards readers. After all, writers seek out the opinions of others in beta readers and critique groups while they are developing the story. So yes, readers can have input, and sometimes fans’ suggestions can ignite a spark in the writer’s imagination when they can’t figure out where to take the story next (even if it isn’t what readers specifically want), especially within a series. So, in conclusion, they both matter. Readers’ opinions should be considered, but the final decision belongs to the writer alone.

P.S. I want to apologize for the inconvenience for those who saw this post in advance a few days ago. I meant to schedule it at a different time and clicked the wrong button. This was not intentional, but given the post’s subject matter, I can’t help but feel the irony. Happy Holidays!

Dusting Off Stories From History

Many thanks to historical novelist Anne Clare for this opportunity to discuss my feelings on using historical fiction to shed light on lesser known events in history!

Guest Post By Andrew McDowell: Dusting Off Stories From History

These are feelings I hope to follow when I venture into historical fiction someday!

Verse: Rhyme or Free?

Anyone who has watched Dead Poets Society remembers the viewpoint Robin Williams’s character John Keating gave regarding poetry, and how it cannot be measured. It was a very touching scene, and so I thought I’d talk about my own experiences with poetry, this being National Poetry Month.

I first began writing poetry when I was a teenager. Back then, one could say I was rather rigid. I didn’t experiment a whole lot, typically using a simple rhyme scheme, unless of course if I was writing a sonnet. I would write sonnets because I was (and still am) a huge fan of Shakespeare. I had even recited Sonnet XVIII (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) at a Poetry Out Loud contest in high school, in which I won third place. But then again, I was rigid there too, because I’d only written sonnets in the Shakespearean format. In a way, looking back, perhaps I was afraid of breaking into new ground.

My rigidness continued for a while at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I was introduced at a poetry club reading by the club leader as a more traditional poet compared to other members. The professor of an advanced poetry workshop class later made the observation that I liked to express a theme or idea at the end of each of my poems. However, it was through both that class and another poetry class at St. Mary’s that I began to break free and experiment with poetry.

I discovered new different forms that I had to write in as part of my assignments in those classes. More importantly, over the years I’ve broken free of form alone and began to not worry about syllables and rhymes. I’ve realized how poetry provides a way to really experiment with words and phrases, more so perhaps than fiction. I continued to express themes in my poetry, but also turned to showing and portraying emotions and feelings.

Among the blogs I follow are poets who use their sites to share their work, which is amazingly diverse and wonderfully done. I myself read three poems during an open mic at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA:

Here’s another reading I did online for The And I Thought Ladies:

And another at the Annapolis MWA:

Poetry expresses what’s in the heart and mind. For any poet, and every writer, their work evolves over time, and through experimentation, gets better.

Resources
  1. Community of Literary Magazines and Presses Directory.
  2. Brewer, Robert Lee. List of 86 Poetic Forms for Poets.
  3. Guildford, Chuck. Stanza Breaks.
  4. Hess, Gary R. 55 Types of Poetry Forms.

Guest Barista, Andrew McDowell on Writer’s Resources

Check out this guest post I did for the Go Dog Go Cafe! Many thanks to Stephen and his associates for this opportunity!

Go Dog Go Café

Writers must read and conduct research to build their stories. No matter the genre, writers need to build plot and characters to create something that will appeal to readers, and there are many books offering tips and insights into these elements. I will discuss those titles I have listed for my own recommended resources and why I think they’re helpful.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of the most well-known and influential books in the world. It draws upon many myths, identifying common characteristics and story elements to form what we know as the hero’s journey. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Campbell’s influence is with George Lucas when he created Star Wars. There’s a reason why this book is helpful to writers: the hero’s journey appeals to people. It’s been depicted in many different ways, and stories do deviate at certain points (Frodo…

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Love is in the Words

Romance has long been considered an important component of literature and drama. It draws them in, including me. People love to praise those who make huge sacrifices for love. Readers like to see it blossom and endure amid great trials and hardships, to see it conquer all. Unfortunately, sometimes fans can get so obsessed with notions of romance that they can lose their hold of reality.

Modern adaptations of classic stories alter characters for the sake of romance. Helen of Troy has been portrayed as falling genuinely in love with Paris rather than being under a spell, as she was originally in The Iliad. In some adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod and Katrina are in love, with Ichabod as a noble hero, whereas in the original story his motives are anything but honorable, and it’s implied Katrina, who was rather vain, merely used him to make Brom Bones jealous. Even villains like Dracula, who originally had no qualms over their actions, have become “humanized” and anti-heroic via romance. Romance appeals to people.

Within fandoms and fanfiction, I’ve seen “shippers” when there’s a love triangle and even with characters who either didn’t end up together or weren’t in love. Margaret Mitchell was hounded by Gone with the Wind fans wanting to know if Rhett and Scarlett reunited. She never gave them a definitive answer, because that wasn’t the point of the story. It’s been suggested some (but not all) fans don’t care about reason, wanting a romantic ending no matter how much it defies logic.

So is there a danger when writers incorporate romance into stories? Yes. There have been articles and books discussing how reading romance novels can be dangerous for one’s physical and psychological health, because in searching for love in real life, readers may aspire to an idealized image found only in fiction. Some try to play it out, thinking it’ll end like in stories. The result is grave disappointment, because in real life nothing is perfect. In Sense and Sensibility, the romantic Marianne falls for the handsome, dashing Willoughby and wears her heart on her sleeve. When he leaves her and marries for money (after being disinherited for abandoning another girl he got pregnant), Marianne wallows in grief, to the point where she endangers her health and nearly dies.

So what can writers do? Recognize the power stories have to shape readers’ views on love. Perhaps aim to show love isn’t perfect, with fights and disagreements, but still satisfy readers. Marianne finds love in Colonel Brandon and gets a happy ending, but she matures and sees the error of her past conduct. Another thing to bear in mind is that sometimes relationships don’t work out. Seldom is a first love everlasting, especially with teenagers. At other times, there isn’t a happy ending but hope for a better future.

I don’t dismiss the power and importance of romance. It’s needed in some (but not all) stories. But writers and readers alike need to understand genuine romance is gradual, with ups and downs. As Shakespeare says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And as I learned in church, love is an umbrella term used for many situations that aren’t identical. Furthermore, what may appear to be love isn’t necessarily love. They say love is blind; so is obsession. Love not built on a solid foundation of friendship, mutual trust, and respect, is the easiest—and fastest—to crumble.

Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they are already published and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but also explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Questions of Narrative and Tense

One has a story in mind and wants to tell it well. It then becomes a question of how you want to tell it. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to write a novel. In fact there are many, and like all details run the risk of being overthought or overdone. Sometimes one can get so worried about them it leads to writer’s block and one cannot move forward, sort of like when choosing a book title or character name. These are among the first details to choose at the beginning. Yet at other times, they seem to manifest themselves and/or change in the process.

One of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to write in first person or third. I find it often depends on the type of story being told. When writing Mystical Greenwood, I chose to write in third person as I felt it was the right way to tell a fantasy story set in an imaginary world no reader would have personally lived in, but could still observe and imagine. But there are many subdivisions of third person, and that was not so easily defined for me.

I flirted between third person limited and subjective. Subjective is trying to convey more than one character’s thoughts and feelings at the same time, whereas limited focuses on chiefly one character. After sending Mystical Greenwood to Mockingbird Lane Press, at my editor’s request I made it third person limited throughout because there were originally some scenes with slight POV shifts that caused confusion. While some chapters and scenes are told from the perspective of characters other than Dermot, and there are scene breaks and a change to another character’s POV in others, I still tried to limit it to one character at a time.

I could’ve written in third person objective, but that would’ve left out every character’s feelings and thoughts, which I felt could detach readers from the narrative. Third person omniscient is often used for high and epic fantasy, where all character’s thoughts and feelings are presented. That can sometimes make it hard for readers to attach themselves to the story, as there would be too many characters to choose from to bond with while reading. But that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m presently trying I-narrative with the neglected pets story. I feel first person works best with realistic fiction (as it’s a setting readers and writers live in and understand), mysteries, and thrillers. I would like to try an epistolary format (telling a story in the form of diary entries and letters), perhaps for historical fiction. Some authors have alternated between third and first within the same book (using the latter for their protagonist), which I might also try. News articles could also be used in epistolary stories, and be another way to alternate. Other writers have changed narrative within a series, like the late Stephen J. Cannell did with the Shane Scully books.

With first person, one can also make it plural or use an unreliable narrator. Some novels try to replicate the thought-process, or stream of conscious; there third or first could work, but I personally find it hard to follow. Some classic books have had chapters or scenes written in the format of plays; another thing I could try.

I should also mention second person narrative: “You”. It’s rarer in literature, as is writing in future tense. Most stories are in past tense, but some have been written in present, just like plays and screenplays. But there have been some well-told stories written using one or both, most famously perhaps Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s always good to experiment and try new things with writing. Writer should use whatever they feel is best for your story.

Further Reading
  1. Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited.
  2. Aldridge, Ally. Point of View.
  3. Wolf, Kalesjha H. First Person vs. Third Person.