Writing advice

Idea Farming

I recently stumbled upon an article on www.writing.com that introduced me to the concept of “idea farming.” (What a cool concept!) It is the idea that we writers can collect and nurture new ideas just like a farmer does her crops.

Probably the most common question published writers have to answer is where do you get your ideas? Many authors (including myself) don’t really know. Or don’t remember. The last novel I published, Deception Island, had been a project I worked on for three years before I considered it finished. I know the idea came from somewhere, I just can’t remember.

The problem is that ideas are everywhere. In a sense, the universe is made of ideas. A good writer can find the germ of a novel or short story in an overheard conversation at the grocer’s, in a television show, the news, or something she saw as she walked the dog around the neighborhood. Most of the writers I’m familiar with don’t really lack ideas (they might disagree with this); they lack good ideas; or they lack the next idea.

For instance, I am currently working on a novel-length project and am approximately halfway through a first draft. Most of my energy is concentrated now on ideas that revolve around the problems and situations in that narrative. I’m not really actively looking for short story and poetry ideas. I’m not even really looking for ideas for the next novel.

Which, of course, sets me up for the creative hangover that follows the completion of a major project like a novel. The period I wander around wondering what to do until I find something new to work on.

The solution, is idea farming: to be constantly gathering and nurturing new ideas as a force of habit, so we don’t have to face a hangover following the completion of a work. So that at any given time, we will have a resource of ideas ready to go.

Keep an Idea Journal

This is an easily accessible list or database of all the ideas you have come up with. You can organize them by types, if you’re really organized (story concepts, plot twists, character revelations, etc.) Or you can simply make a list. The important thing is to create a single place to keep all your ideas.

And no, you cannot keep them all in your head with any level of security. How many ideas have we forgotten over the years?

Come up with 3-5 new ideas every day.

They do not have to be earth-shattering fantastic ideas. They just have to be ideas. It does not matter whether they are good, bad, or mediocre. The object here is to simply think of and write down three to five ideas every day and by doing so, get your mind into the habit of noticing them. They could even be silly. For instance, today I thought of the name of a female comic book villain: Anna Fillaxis. It’s silly, but it’s an idea. And nobody has to see your idea journal but you. So be silly. Who cares?

Unfortunately, no matter how successful or famous you are, every idea a writer comes up with is not going to be a good one. Some are good, some mediocre, and some will be downright horrible. Where idea farming comes in is the writer doesn’t avoid, or discard bad ideas out-of-hand, but like a farmers allows everything to grow as it will, then, at harvest, separates out the best.

The idea farmer says that the key to coming up with good ideas is to come up with a lot of ideas.

To do that, we need to train our minds to notice them, even when we’re consciously busy with other things. Write them down. Memorize them, then transfer them into your idea journal. If you can consistently do this, in a month, you will have a list of thirty to fifty ideas. Surely, one or two of them will be pretty good.

And you’ll never have that “what do I do now?” feeling.

Writing advice

Beware the Cookie-cutter Character

The other day I was wasting time on the internet (which is exceedingly easy to do) when I came across a video that made a lasting impression on me. The subject matter is not important, but suffice it to say that the woman involved truly believed something that is patently false. False, as in a minute’s worth of research on Google would prove it, false.

Okay. So there are some people out there who are ignorant. There are others who are not intellectually gifted. Well, duh. Everyone knows that. Why did it make such a big impression on me?

Because, depending on one’s environment, we may not run across people like this very often. If we don’t, it’s hard to put them in our fiction. I personally have this problem and have to consciously fight it as I write and edit my fiction.

The natural instinct of us human beings as we create stories and the like is create characters based on our own experiences and milieu. It’s what we do as children. We imagine we are pirates, or musketeers, or princesses, whatever. We don’t imagine other people as the pirates, except as minor characters. We don’t imagine that the bad guy will not be impressed with our daring-do. We certainly don’t imagine our fellow pirates might not agree with our plans.

As I said, it’s only natural.

Unfortunately when we begin to use this same method to write fiction, we run into a very real problem: cookie-cutter characters. I am no exception. I have to consciously fight my instinctual urge to create these cookie-cutter characters.

What do I mean by cookie-cutter characters? These are not the two-dimensional characters so many articles warn us about. A cookie-cutter character can be very well-rounded. A cookie-cutter character is one who shares the same diction and world-view with another character despite differing backgrounds.

For example. I am a white, middle class American with a college education. I am fairly good at expressing myself and familiar with world history and current events. If I am not careful (and this is something I’ve only become aware of within the last ten years, or so) all my characters will sound like white, middle-class Americans with a college education, even if some of them are, say inner city people of color, high school dropouts, or immigrants from another country.

The video I watched reminded me of this because my initial reaction was to think “she can’t really believe this, can she?” The answer is “yes, she can.” While it could be argued that most people aren’t factually ignorant or mentally challenged, there are plenty of people who are and plenty of people who simply don’t care enough about the subject to spend their energy there. Everyone does not think like I do. Everyone does not speak or view the world as I do.

This needs to be reflected in my writing.

Why? Because it makes the work of fiction more realistic and more interesting. Say your main characters are policy analysts for the United States State Department having dinner at a local restaurant. The odds say their waitress probably cannot offer a nuanced opinion on American policy towards Syria. Sure, she could be working her way through graduate school, but it’s more likely that she’s a high school graduate with two small children at home and spends all her time and energy supporting and raising her family. If they asked her opinion (which they probably wouldn’t) her answer would reflect that background.

If she answered at all.

Okay, so we now agree that we need to include a realistic variety of characters with a variety of backgrounds and diction and vocabulary patterns that match their backgrounds. So how do we do that? This is where our handy writer’s notebook comes in. We need to actively listen to the people around us of different backgrounds. How does the unemployed high school dropout describe his frequent run-ins with the police? How does the banker describe his run-in with the SEC? They are very similar situations, but I’d bet the two men (or women) would use very differing terms in their description.

So use your notebook. Take notes about how various people talk, how they hold themselves, and their attitudes. Often it only takes a few words of casual conversation to determine these things. Start a collection. Create a database to consult as you’re working.

Constantly check your work as you write and edit. Does your ditch digger (I know, they don’t exist anymore, but you know what I mean) speak like a professor of comparative literature? Does your cardiac surgeon talk like a fry cook? If so, you might have cookie-cutter characters.
And I will continue to work to keep them out of my own work.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest part of writing, in my humble opinion, is naming things. Characters, places, businesses, musical acts, it makes no difference, finding an acceptable name can be torture. I struggle. For some reason, titles are different. They can be difficult also, but they belong in a different category; they are added (in my case anyway) after the piece is completed and, unless you are working against a deadline, there is all sorts of time.

Characters are different. Place names are different.

I have been known to bring my writing to a skidding halt when the narrative calls for a name.

Why? Because each name, whether it’s that of a major character, or the street where the final shootout happens, or the nightclub the bad guy uses as a front is not only important. It has to be perfect. As perfect as I can make it.

Names are important. They are part of character.

Think about it. A man named Mark is going to have a different personality and life experience than a man named Elmer; a woman named Melissa will have a different experience than one named Gertrude. It’s why prospective parents spend so much time and energy discussing and deciding the new baby’s name. It’s important that the name be perfect.

I think it is the same with a name in fiction. Whether it’s a major character, a minor character, or the name of the street they live on, each name has to be perfect. It has to match the personality you’ve created (and enhance it) and each must be distinct enough that the reader will not get confused. (As in having characters named Jenny, Jeanie, and Janine in the same story).

Even more important, everything—absolutely everything—in our work, including the names, must serve a purpose. If your character’s name is Dan, ask yourself why? Why “Dan?” Why not Mark, or Tom? You may not have the answer to that question, but you should at least be thinking about it.

For instance, the protagonist in my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, is named Dan. Why? Because I wanted him to be just an ordinary guy, strong, but flawed. I wanted him to be your next door neighbor. As a reader pointed out, “Daniel” is also my father’s name, though I didn’t consciously pick it for that reason.

Back to my problem with names bringing my creative narrative to a stop. What did I do about it? Two things: I created a database listing the top ten surnames of every nationality with a significant presence in the United States (since almost all my work involves Americans and is set somewhere in the country). Why surnames? Because otherwise I will end up with the same last names in all my fiction.

Second, I began using placeholders in my fiction when I come upon the need for a new name. I’ll just type in “XX” or “YY” and continue with the story. Later, when the first draft is completed, I can go back, database in hand, and decided on names.

It seems to work.

At some point, I would also like to compile a database of interesting business names, street names and other such things, but haven’t been able to get to it yet.

Other writers, such as Henry James and Charles Dickens were known to keep lists of names in their notebooks. Again, so they could reference them when needed. Dickens, especially, is famous for coining names that reflect the character’s personality, such as Ebenezer Scrooge.

However you decide to handle your characters’ names, take them seriously, as seriously as you would naming a child, because it is just as important. At least it’s important to your fiction.

Writing advice

5 Tips For Beginning Writers: Addendum

This tip didn’t quite make the top five, but was close. So I’ll call it 5a: Be a Verbal Pack Rat.

A writer needs to be a pack rat.

A pack rat when it comes to words anyway. (Feel free to throw away most of those old newspapers and magazines). We need collections of certain words: names, (I, personally, have an awful time naming characters, so started a file filled with interesting names for later reference); description of people, places, and things; catchy turns of phrase; possible titles. You get the idea. The object is to have a notebook or database of ideas you can reference when needed.

In the same vein, a writer should never throw away any of his or her work, no matter how bad you or anyone else thinks it is, whether it’s finished, or not. Create a file on your computer and store them there, or dedicate a slot in your filing cabinet to abandoned and unfinished work.

Why, you ask? That essay was horrible; that poem didn’t come close to working; the story fell flat. Why should you save them?

There are two reasons.

First: because you never know. Just because a short story you wrote when you were twenty-one didn’t work, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. It might just mean that, at twenty-one, you didn’t yet have the writing skills to render the story properly. If you revisit the same story twenty years later, you might just have those skills.

If you no longer have the story, you’ll never know. Saving those unsuccessful works, might just save the gem you can use years later.

The second reason to save unsuccessful work is strictly as a morale boost. Face it, writing is a very tough avocation that can take years and years of practice before we can consistently produce quality work. It’s easy and common to become discouraged. Who wouldn’t after collecting dozens of rejection letters?

One of the easiest methods to combat that discouragement is to pull out a story, poem, or essay you’ve written several years ago. Read it with your modern, more mature eye. Odds are, the first impression you’ll receive is “man, I am so much better than this now!” Yes, your skills have improved over the years, your technique is more sophisticated. In short, realize that you are better than you used to be. You might not be as good as you want to be (who of us is?), but you are making progress. Use these old and unsuccessful works to remind yourself of that.

After all, isn’t that all we can really expect as writers and artists, or even as people? That, over time and with experience, we do get better at what we’re doing?