Posted in Uncategorized, writing habits, writing prompts

4 Ways To Find Story Ideas

How do we get story ideas? We all want an idea so great that we can’t put down the pen. But all writers sometimes feel like the muse has left them. If you’re like a lot of my fiction students, you might love words and language and get pleasure from putting together sentences, but struggle to find a story to structure your writing. Sometimes you might feel like you have to wait around for the angel of inspiration to bless you, but it turns out, generating new story ideas is a skill like any other. It can be honed and practiced.

This blog post is not going to be a list of prompts. There are endless web pages containing lists of prompts. These don’t always solve the problem of inspiration. It’s not uncommon to get a prompt, and still have no idea what to do with it.

Instead, I’m going to be talking about ways you can mine your own experiences and interest for story ideas. Unlike prompts, which might feel random or unrelated to you, these methods will generate story ideas for you that are already connected to powerful memories and the things you feel most passionate about.

Have A Writing Practice

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of having a writing practice. However, I don’t think everybody has to write every day. We all have different lives and schedules and what’s important is finding something that works for you.

The reason why this helps generate story ideas is the practice of writing will change how you see the world. When I was a teenager, I used to write poetry, and because I was in the habit of writing poetry, I would see things that would give me ideas for poems. I don’t write poems anymore, and I never get ideas for poems.

If you don’t know what to write about, you can start keeping a regular journal. This could be your day-to-day activities, your observations or your dreams. Eventually, you’ll start to notice what you like to write about, what’s interesting, and what could be expanded.

Write One True Sentence

This is how Ernest Hemingway always broke his writer’s block. For him, “one true sentence” is a simple declarative sentence, not something overly flowery or philosophical. His first lines usually have concrete physical details and introduce both a setting and a character. Here are some examples:

  • It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
  • It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
  • He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”

What “true” sentences can you think of? You might want to imagine a person who caught your eyes somewhere, or an event from your real life. You can still feel free to use this as a jumping off point if you write fiction.

Listen to Music

Appreciating another form of art can help us reach creative breakthroughs. I often use paintings, photographs and music during writing exercises in my classes. Of course, you can get inspiration from dance, sculpture, film or any work of art that you’re passionate about.

When I use music prompts in class, or to inspire my own writing, I tend to favor songs that have cryptic lyrics. Some examples that I’ve used are “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes, “O Children” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan. I feel like this inspires nonlinear thinking as it is easy to free-associate from the images without pinning you to a single narrative. Or you could ignore the lyrics altogether and focus on the emotions that the music produces for you.

Of course, if you have a favorite narrative song, you can also try to expand the story. Maybe there is a minor character in the song that you’ve always wondered about, or you expect the lovers in the song are bound to break up.

Take Inspiration from Books

Part of being a writer is being part of the literary tradition. Writers have been taking inspiration from their fellow writers for thousands of years. Even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on an Italian poem, which in turn was inspired by the Roman writer Ovid’s book Metamorphoses.

One exercise that I like to do with my students is to use opening lines from famous novels to begin our own stories. A good opening sentence can evoke endless possibilities. This works best if you use a sentence that’s unfamiliar to you, which is why I didn’t provide the titles which might introduce bias. Here is the list I use in class:

  • “All children, except one, grow up.”
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.”
  • “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
  • “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
  • “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
  • “A screaming comes across the sky.”
  • “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
  • “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

There are many other ways to find inspiration from your favorite books and stories. There are published novels about the Pride and Prejudice characters fighting zombies and Sherlock Holmes during World War II. Being inspired by your favorite books isn’t just for online fan fiction, though you’re basing something directly on an existing work, make sure it’s in the public domain.

So you might want to give it a try. What happens when you put your favorite characters into a new situation or exotic setting? What would Romeo and Juliet’s marriage have been like if they didn’t die? What if Odysseus was an Iraq War veteran? All great books from the past can be updated a multitude of ways.

Are you looking for more writing inspiration? Follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in writing habits

6 Time Management Tricks for Writers

If you are anything like my students, the hardest part about writing for you isn’t the writing itself – it’s scheduling your writing time and working on your project consistently enough to meet your goals.

In this post I will share six time-management and goal-setting techniques that can benefit any writer’s life.

Discover Opened Mode

“Closed mode” is a mindset in which we are anxiously focused on our to-do list. In this mindset, we are impatient and have little room for humor.

In contrast, “open mode” is when we are childlike and playful. In this mindset, we are more able to be creative.

I learned about closed mode and open mode from a lecture by John Cleese on creativity. John Cleese is a comedic actor and writer from Monty Python, who was also responsible for many other fine movies and TV shows, like A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers.

In his lecture, he gives five steps for getting from closed mode to open mode.

  1. Space: The first step is creating a space away from the stresses of life. It can be helpful to have a particular workspace, and let the people in your life know they aren’t to disturb you there.
  2. Time: You also should set aside a specific amount of time. Cleese suggests thirty minutes. This can make it easier to relax into the open mindset because you’ll know that once it’s over you can go back to ticking items off your to-do list.
  3. Time: Yes, he lists time twice. This time he means to keep working at your project even when you feel stuck. It’s easy to hit a minor roadblock in your writing and go check Facebook or turn on the TV, but don’t do it. Keep working for the amount of time you set aside.
  4. Confidence: Write without worrying about making a mistake. There’s an old saying, “write drunk, edit sober.” While I wouldn’t literally recommend it, you should write your first draft confidently without looking back. We can come up with our most creative and original ideas when we write without fear.
  5. Humor: Nothing relaxes us more than humor. At its core, humor is finding surprising connections between two or more ideas. Find a way to laugh before you start your writing session to boost your creativity.

The Pomodoro Technique

John Cleese’s advice on time is consistent with a popular time management system called the Pomodoro technique. This system gets its name from a brand of egg timer that is shaped like a tomato. It has just a few simple steps:

  1. Decide on what task you have to do.
  2. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. Take a five minute break.
  5. Set the timer again and work for another twenty-five minutes…

I often use the Pomodoro technique when I write. Sometimes instead of using a timer for 25 minutes, I’ll use one side of a record, which is usually about the right amount of time. I find that the five minute break is very important because when I have the short break planned, I’m unlikely to take a longer, unplanned break.

Suggested Activity

Think about your schedule and your environment. Where and when can you make room for writing? Be as precise as possible, for instance, instead of saying, “in the mornings” say “at 7 A.M. after my first cup of coffee, I will use my laptop in the study.”

SMART Goals

Not all goals are created equal. If our goals are vague or unrealistic, we won’t be able to meet them. Make sure your goals are SMART:

  • Specific: How many minutes, pages or chapters are you planning on writing?
  • Measurable: How will you  keep track of the number of words or minutes you write? 
  • Attainable: Setting a goal that is too challenging may lead to failure and discouragement.  
  • Relevant: Why is this goal important to you? Do you like the way the act of writing makes you feel centered? Or do you have a story you are burning to share?
  • Time-framed: When do you want to accomplish this goal?

Suggested Activity

Write about a goal that you’ve accomplished in the past. What made you succeed? How did you feel when it was complete? How can you replicate those results in the future?

Find Accountability

A group of people with similar goals can keep each other accountable. Here are some ways you can connect with other writers:

  • Take a writing class: Writing classes are a great way to meet other beginning writers and get some guidance from a teacher at the same time.
  • Find a writing group on MeetUp.com: I’ve met many wonderful people through MeetUp. You can find writers’ groups devoted to open mics, silent writing sessions, critiquing each other’s work or just hanging out.
  • Use the NaNoWriMo web forum: I haven’t used this one personally, but this website is very popular among novelists who want to celebrate their progress on their projects.
  • Take part in the #writingcommunity on Twitter: Twitter can be a useful place for finding writers in your genre.

Sign a Creativity Contract

I’ve mentioned before that I love the creativity contract from Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. She recommends displaying it where you work in order to stay motivated. Here is her original contract: 

I, ___________________, understand that I am undertaking an intensive, guided encounter with my own creativity. I commit myself to the twelve-week duration of the course. I, __________________, commit to weekly reading, daily morning pages, a weekly artist date, and the fulfilment of each week’s tasks. I, ___________________, further understand that this course will raise issues and emotions for me to deal with. I, ___________________, commit myself to excellent self-care—adequate sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and pampering – for the duration of the course. ______________________________________ (signature) ___________________ (date)

The details of this contract are pretty specific for people following the program in her book. For our own use, we can make our own creativity contracts using our SMART goals. Here are some examples that I suggest to my students:

  • Start a daily writing habit for 30 minutes every morning.
  • Complete three chapters of your novel by the end of the month.
  • Write short story consisting of 3-10 pages every week for the next three months.

Suggested Activity

Write your own Creativity Contract that is tailored towards your SMART goals. Sign it and find a place to display it near your workspace.

Use Productivity Tools

It is tough to stay focused today. Very smart people are working hard to make their technology as addictive as possible. Luckily, some other smart people have created some tools to fight back.

  • Freedom: a computer application that blocks the internet for a chosen number of hours. I used this application a lot when I was writing papers in college and grad school.
  • Stayfocused: a Chrome plugin that blocks certain websites after a chosen amount of minutes per day. I currently use this plugin to limit my social media time. I only have thirty minutes a day, which motivates me to spend that time connecting with the writing community instead of mindlessly scrolling.
  • Joe’s Goals: a free online habit tracker. I’ve been using this website since 2013. I love the simple interface and get a lot of pleasure out of checking off my goals.
  • Morning Pages: Turns writing goals into an addictive game. Like the Creativity Contracts, this is also inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way. I haven’t used this one as much, but it’s very visually appealing.
  • Clockify: a free timer for projects. A friend recently recommended this to me. It’s a great way to keep track of how much time you are spending on your writing projects.

But of course my favorite way to stay focused on my writing is the low-tech way: in a notebook, away from a computer.

If you are looking for more advice on meeting your writing goals, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing habits

How to Achieve Your Writing New Year’s Resolutions

Sometimes meeting our writing goals can be difficult. I learned that myself last month when I got sidelined by appendicitis. Today I want to talk about how to achieve your writing resolutions in the New Year. This is a particularly pertinent topic for me, as I’m still getting back in the swing of things after recovering from surgery. We won’t always know what life is going to throw at us, but if we establish good habits, we can always find a way to achieve our goals, whether that means finishing that novel, or simple starting a daily writing habit.

Sign a Contract

And I don’t mean signing a book deal. In this case, I mean making a promise to yourself. The Creativity Contract is a concept that I first discovered in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Her original contract is quite simple:

I, ___________________________________, understand that I am undertaking an intensive, guided encounter with my own creativity. I commit myself to the twelve-week duration of the course. I, ________________________________, commit to weekly reading, daily morning pages, a weekly artist date, and the fulfillment of each week’s tasks.
I, ___________________________________, further understand that this course will raise issues and emotions for me to deal with. I, ______________________________, commit myself to excellent self-care–adequate sleep, diet, exercise and pampering–for the duration of the course.
______________________________Signature
______________________________Date

But I make some changes to the contract for my own writing classes. I find it’s helpful to have my students reflect on their concrete goals for the course. For some of my students, that might mean writing their first ever short story. For more experienced writers, they might want to refine a publishable collection by the end of the term.

So what do you want to achieve by the end of the year? Spend a few minutes today jotting down your goals. Be realistic, but also challenge yourself.

Experiment

When I’m advising my students on starting a daily writing habit, I always tell them to experiment with different elements in their writing routine. Some people like to write in the morning, some at night. Some people prefer to write in twenty minute bursts, while others need an hour to get into a good groove. Some people need to make a cup of tea and curl up in their favorite chair in a quiet house in order to focus, while other people can scribble in a notebook in a crowded cafe. There is no wrong way to write. There’s only what works for you.

It is also important to remember that what works for you might change over time. Before the pandemic hit, I was writing on a novel during my long commute by train. When I stopped going into work, I found it difficult to work on this project that I associated with writing in this very specific space. I decided to take a break from that project and work on other writing while I found a new routine for my stay-at-home lifestyle.

Join a Group

Having a writing group is one of the best ways to increase your accountability. I’m part of a bi-monthly writing on Zoom, and sometimes knowing that my friends are looking forward to seeing my latest chapter is all I need to push through a difficult passage.

Even if an in-person writing group is off the table right now, there are many different kinds of writing groups that can fit your lifestyle. If you are new to writing, taking a writing class online can be a great way to meet other writers. The friends that you make in your writing class might end up being your critiquing partners for life.

Forgive Yourself

Remember, a single slip up doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Unexpected difficulties will always pop up in your life. After I had my appendectomy, I couldn’t write for almost a week. I was groggy from pain killers for the first few days, and my incisions made it difficult to sit upright at a computer. I missed a lot of goals that I had made both for this blog and for my other writing projects. It is natural to feel discouraged. Even after I recovered from my surgery, my routines had all been broken and I’ve had to work to establish them all over again.

But sometimes feeling discouraged can make us give up on our goals altogether, and that is a trap to avoid. I once had a roommate who was always trying to quit smoking. Every time she broke down and had one cigarette, she would think, “well, this attempt to quit smoking has failed, so I might as well finish the pack.” Then she’d need a new pack. Soon the cycle would start again.

It’s inevitable. At some point, you are going to fail to meet your goals. But the important thing is that you try to get back on track as soon as you can’t. Don’t wait for another New Year’s resolution to start again. You can renew your commitment to your writing in any season of the year.