Today we have our first regular monthly post from Ruth Harris. Ruth is in NYC, so she very well may be without power today, so if we don’t hear from her, we can blame Irene. All of you East-Coasters, hang in there: you’re in our thoughts.
I think the most common question a writer gets is "where do you get your ideas?" Some of us find it hard to think of a simple answer, but now, it's easy: just tell them there's an app for that! Ruth suggests you use an app like Evernote to preserve random ideas and articles as you browse. I checked it out and it looks pretty awesome. It’s free to download for Windows, so I’m going to try it. I don’t know if anything can really organize my hoard of yellowed clippings, grimy notebooks and random bookmarks, but it’s worth a try.
This is the kind of article I love to read—one that tells you NOT to feel guilty. Go ahead and read those trashy magazines and tabloids. It’s research, people: research!
And, Ta-Dah! Ruth also has a stupendous announcement that represents a major pinnacle for this blog: Our November guest (November 13th) will be the legendary crime fiction writer and writing guru LAWRENCE BLOCK!!!
Wealth Creation for Writers
by Ruth Harris
Writers are always being told to read, but since just about every writer I know—Including me—is an almost-obsessive reader, that advice is more or less like offering style advice to Coco Chanel.
Instead, I want to explain how your ordinary, everyday reading—whether on the Web, via Kindle, iPad or Nook, in dead tree versions of magazines or newspapers—can be your own personal gold mine of ideas.
Once you delve into that mine, you will be able to find ways to connect unrelated ideas—one of a writer’s most potent weapons. You’ll also discover new vocabularies, find important clues to the creation of characters and plots and feel confident that you will never run out of ideas.
1. Read anything and everything. Never feel guilty about picking up a magazine or Web surfing as long as you make note of stories that pique your interest and ideas that flash through your mind.
2. Consider an app like Evernote.
Or at least keep a notebook to scribble down a few words. (Honestly, any writer who doesn’t have a note book—paper or electronic—should have his or her writing devices impounded.)
3. Connect the dots
. Connecting apparently unrelated ideas is the writer’s version of magic. An example is Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article
’s national character and German finances. In his article, ML points out how the Germanic dual obsessions with cleanliness and filth (shit/scheisse) resulted in German banks holding a boatload of worthless bonds. The bonds, rated AAA, looked clean from the outside but were dirty (crap) on the inside.
This connection of ideas is basic to a writer’s tool box: an aspect of the German character/the bond market, seemed, on the surface, unrelated. But together, they provide spine and energy to what might otherwise be a dull article about European finance.
4. Look backward. In his famous 2006 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs commented that you can only “connect the dots when you look backward.” It’s what writers do: it’s why characters are unforgettable, stories are compelling and plots offer twists and surprises. It’s only when you look backward that you can see connections you miss when you were going forward. That’s why it’s essential to make note of your everyday reading and what jumps out at you.
OK, how does this work?
Here are a few stories that got my attention recently:
- One involved an importer who took a chance on selling a prized variety of Pakistani mangoes costing $80-$100 a box even though he would probably lose money on the deal.
- Another was about a Chinese beauty queen being trained to enter (and win) the Miss Universe contest.
- Yet another was about how Hewlett Packard’s purchase of Palm, which looked like a bad deal at first, is now looking good.
I doubt I will ever write about Chaunsa mangoes but it’s entirely possible I will write about pride. Perhaps, one day, my note about the Pakistani-American importer who put pride before profit to distribute what are considered the world’s most delicious mangoes will be just what I need to make my point.
The Miss Universe contest doesn’t interest me but Luo Zilin’s determination and hard work—the dance lessons, the English lessons, the etiquette lessons, the practice in cat-walking and the media interviews—do interest me. They might, one day, help create a character.
I also don’t give a hoot about Hewlett Packard’s corporate machinations but a decision that looked bad at first but turns out well later offers the potential of a great plot twist. For example: Mr. Wrong who turns out to be Mr. Right.
Here are some other ways non-literary reading can improve your writing.
5. Increase your vocabularies. (Please note the plural.) Just about every world has its own jargon and, if you want to write with style and verve, you need to find out what people who occupy those worlds say and how they say it.
- Fashion magazines, style blogs and catalogs are filled with photos and descriptions of clothing. In them you will find a whole vocabulary with which to describe your character’s clothing and wardrobe in a way that brings them alive and makes them real to the reader. Stilettos or clogs? Polos or Tees? Grunge or business casual? Black tie or white shoe? The vocabulary of clothing is complex and rich.
- Beauty and grooming sites are filled with photos and comment, some of it snarky—some of it sincere—about exactly one subject: how people look. With their help, you can turn your descriptions from insipid to inspired. Good hair day or bad plastic surgery? Muffin top or too rich and too thin?
- The business pages are a source for jargon as well as fantastic information on occupations & careers: your characters have to make a living, don’t they?
- Niche magazines or blogs—bass fishing, ice climbing, stamp collecting, arctic biology—will open new dictionaries and provide information for the alert writer.
6) Find unlimited plot ideas. Does you WIP need more struggle and conflict? Success and failure? Triumph and tragedy?
- Go to the sports pages. Seriously. Almost every story is basically about how an athlete, talented or otherwise, overcomes—or doesn’t—golden-boy good looks, a reputation for dogging it, a lousy attitude in the clubhouse, jail time, injury, scandal, depression, poor parenting, mean and/or incompetent coaching.
How the tournament winner holding the silver cup is a guy no one ever heard of. How the overlooked utility infielder gets the game-winning home run and the overpaid hot prospect blows the save. How the local hero is a good guy who gives more than just money to the charities he cares about. Why a big, hulking defensive lineman takes growth hormones to get even bigger and more hulking. How Tiger Woods rose to the pinnacle and why he then fell from the heights. What Novak Djokavich did in order to defeat Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal. How the American women’s soccer team won, and whether or not Serena can win again.
Besides, it’s not just the drama and the schmaltz, it’s also about the language: sports are all about action and sports writers are great with verbs.
- Business magazines: They’re full of stories of loss and triumph. Read between the numbers and statistics and tap into the emotions they generate.
- And don’t forget the tabloids: Yes. Those guilty glances at the headlines in the supermarket are an endless wellspring of sex and scandal: a great plot in every crazy headline.
The last thing I want to point out is that when you create a gold mine from your everyday reading, that mine will be yours and yours alone because it will be based on what you care about and therefore you and only you will be able to mine from it.
The mango importer who interests me is another writer’s yawn. The connection I made between a Chinese Miss Universe contestant and her methodical determination might leave another writer rolling his or her eyes. The fascination with which I read Michael Lewis’s article about the connections between the German character and the German economy might cause another reader to flee to the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly.
So don’t feel guilty about your “light” reading. It’s your own personal gold mine. You’re the only one who can create it—and the only one who can profit by it.
What about you, scriveners? Where do you find your ideas? Do you keep notebooks? File newsclippings? Use Evernote? Do you read tabloids and tell yourself it's research?
Labels: Anne R. Allen, Evernote, How to find plot ideas, Lawrence Block, Ruth Harris, The Passive Voice, Write it Sideways 101 best tips for writers