books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Jumpstarting Fiction: How to Find Unique, Timely Ideas to Energize Your Creativity


We have a big announcement: Ruth Harris has started her own blog!

No, she’s not going to abandon us over here. Her new blog is a whole 'nother kettle of fish links. She will be posting a daily collection of links to articles she finds intriguing, unique, or just plain wacky. Fun stuff to use as writing prompts to jumpstart your own ideas.

I can tell you from experience how well the random newspaper article works as a writing prompt. Camilla Randall, the ultra-polite sleuth who stars in my comic mystery series, was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times that poked vicious fun at a young woman who had been named “debutante of the year.”  

It was so condescending and mean-spirited, I wanted to stick up for the well-heeled teenager in question. So I sat down and rewrote the piece from her point of view. The result became the opening scene of my first Camilla book, The Best Revenge. One five-paragraph article jumpstarted three novels (with a fourth on the way.) 

So check out Ruth’s blog. She links to fun, newsy ideas you can use to add punch to your fiction, as Ruth explains below.

But exercise caution, they can be addictive. Bet you can’t click on just one!

JUMPSTARTING FICTION & ENERGIZING YOUR CREATIVITY: AN EDITOR EXPLAINS WHAT TO READ AND HOW TO READ IT—BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE YOUR NEXT IDEA IS COMING FROM

by Ruth Harris

For quite a while, I’ve been thinking about starting a blog. Problem was, I couldn’t figure out what to blog about. I knew I wanted to create something for readers and writers. I wanted it to be unique, helpful and entertaining. But what, exactly, would that be--and how would I do it?

For years (decades) I was an editor during what is now called the “golden age” of publishing.  In mass market paperback, we worked on a monthly publication schedule with ferocious demands for content. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration, I had to go out looking for it.

I haunted bookstores, inhaled the bestseller lists, got chummy with the sales department—they were mostly male, some very bright and college-educated. Others with practical on-the-ground experience had moved to the publishing side from distribution.

Plus one guy I suspected was a “made” man, a "dese" and "dems" guy straight out of The Godfather. How exactly he sold books I had no idea but there he was, stopping by my office with the newest jokes, the latest in industry gossip and accurate info on current sales trends.

All of this info gave me a good sense of what turned readers on (and what turned them off). The next step was working with writers to turn the raw material into books which meant I needed ideas and plenty of them.

I read books, of course—the ones I edited, plus books other editors enthused over and other publishers launched. Fiction and non-fiction, cookbooks, bios, history and how-to’s came through my office and, at minimum, I glanced at each one. In addition to books, I read magazines and newspapers—everything from Cosmopolitan, Scientific American and Playboy to The New York Times and the tabloids, the New York Post (cheeky and fun even in those days) and the Daily News which had—and has—terrific sports writers.

I went to the big international newsstands around the city in those days and bought foreign magazines in a search for the headline or the article or the picture that would trigger an idea. A friend supported herself writing for movie magazines and true confessions magazines. Another edited Confidential, sleazy but wildly popular. Through them, I kept up on pop culture.

I had lunch and dinner with writers and other editors. Impromptu phone conversations and office drop-by visits. Writers and colleagues suggested ideas and plots; so did I. My magpie reading added up. Bits of this and that, fragments half remembered or partially digested, a shocking or moving news article, wars and weddings all contributed.

As I was thinking about what kind of blog I would enjoy writing, I thought about those days and realized that out of that messy high-low stew, ideas bubbled and bloomed.

*ideas that led to a book, a plot, a title or a series
*ideas that solved plot problems
*ideas that sparked new ideas

I also learned not to dismiss or pre-judge anything because we—literally—never knew where out next terrific idea would come from.

Realizing in retrospect that it was that oddball potpourri that caused ideas to flow, I began to think about how I could recreate that creative energy in blog form.  Why not share all the interesting, offbeat, repellent, lurid, provocative and enlightening content that rushes past in a torrent every day? With the huge plus that the internet adds a vital new dimension: the ability to link.

Writers are constantly being advised to read, read, read but not very many advisers are specific about exactly what writers should read and how their reading can help them. What I’ve decided to do is employ my editor’s eye and offer links to content that grabbed my attention with the thought that what got me thinking might also trigger ideas in others.

I want to make it clear that you should almost never take anything literally.

*Consider a link through the filter of your own interests, your genre or a genre you’re interested in trying.
*Whether you need a plot, a scene, a character, a setting or even a word, don’t wait around waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, actively seek out inspiration.
*Be assertive but not impatient.
*Make allowances for the delayed reaction.
*Give yourself and your creativity time and space to process your reactions to what you’ve read, skimmed and/or experienced.

Here are a few examples of how reading something you never thought would interest you can increase your creativity:

*A link to an article about clothes/fashion/design might seem to be about the clothes--but look deeper. What about the designer him/herself? Or the man or woman wearing those clothes?  Could a model in haute couture or a geek in a hoodie, a socialite in a fur or a club kid in shredded jeans suggest a new character, bring an existing character into clearer focus or even spark a brand new idea?

*A link to a review of a book about spies in New York might suggest a setting, a double cross, a killing or a ghost. What happens if a chick lit heroine moves into an apartment where Nazi secrets were once traded? Or what if a present-day spy learns from history and avoids a fatal mistake?

*The link to a story about butt lifts & millionaire mixers might suggest a character (or a few), a setting (for a crime or a romance), or how the millionaire at a mixer is really a billionaire. Or a complete con man. Or woman.

I love slang, lingo and shoptalk—so whenever I come across lively examples, I’ll share them because slang and shoptalk can jazz up the most workmanlike but necessary scene. For example:

*piaffes and gassers. (Translation for people as uninformed as Ruth’s blog partner: piaffes are steps in dressage and gassers are a sprints by football players. See what you’ll learn on Ruth’s blog?)

*And that gem, BOHICA. Military slang for: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.

I hope you will think of this new blog as a springboard, a tool box or a bank, one from which you can borrow interest-free and keep going back for more. I hope it will spark new ideas or refurbish old ideas in a new way, and that the comments will be used to bounce ideas off me and other readers.

Last and most important of all, remember that you’re not looking for an idea. You’re looking for ideas that will generate other ideas—and lots of them.

What about you, scriveners? Have you found inspiration for your characters and plots in unlikely places?  Do you have a favorite place to go to jumpstart your ideas?

WINNER! The WINNER of the Terence Stamp CD contest is Rose Zurkan! Congratulations Rose, Alicia will be in touch with you!
 

18 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the new blog, Ruth!
    A potpourri of ideas? That's right up my alley.
    I tend to find more inspiration in visuals, such as movies and TV, although I do read often. Not always a lot of books, but a lot online.

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  2. Unlikely places, yes. I'm always stuffing data in, and leaving it to the subconscious to process and sort it all out.

    Eventually, though, I'm going to have to WRITE those characters. So my mind is conditioned to be utterly selfish: how would [item in news] affect some part of ME.

    If I can see how someone could get a divorce from someone I considered utterly desirable, for example, then a story lights up: is the part of me who finds the desirability (is that even a word?) also capable of asking for the divorce? And if so, why and how and with what caveats? And the brain is off and running, and pretty soon the character is an entirely separate entity from me (but I can understand it, sort of), and from the inspiration.

    I look for that resonance, and out pops the character.
    ABE

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  3. A great idea! Just subscribed.

    Our own Sugar & Spice was inspired by a five-line newspaper article, but the trigger for a great idea can come from almost anything.

    Perhaps Ruth can give us some hints on how to find the time to write even a fraction of the new story-lines her blog will inspire.

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  4. Hi Ruth!

    My daily guilty pleasure is the NY Post. I love the tacky, but hilarious headlines, the occasional perp walk pics, and especially Page Six. Celebrity antics, the rich and wretched, and the nano-second marriages and messy divorices are smorgasbord of inspiration.

    Congratulations on starting a blog!

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  5. Alex—Thanks so much! You've pointed out another source of inspiration: tv & movies. Lots of really talented writers working in those areas.

    ABE—You've expressed the process very well. It happens somewhere in the subconscious but that subconscious needs to be continuously fed. Stephen King calls it "the boys downstairs," meaning that creativity comes from a place just below consciousness. It works away, without our knowledge until it's ready to reveal itself.

    Mark—Thanks for the comment & the subscription. I didn't know S&S came from a newspaper article. I recall that Truman Capote got the idea for IN COLD BLOOD from a very brief newspaper item.

    As to finding the time, when you figure it out, would you let me know? ;-)

    Jen—Thanks! Ah, yes, the rich & the wretched. A bottomless pit of schadenfreude & inspiration.

    The NYPost headlines are truly fab!

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  6. Ruth, congrats on the new blog. I am sure with your wealth of know-how it will be a must read !!

    Inspired by an article in Playbill Magazine and ended with a three book series :)

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  7. fOIS—WTG! My point exactly.

    How long did it take from first reading the Playbill article to realizing it would be a book? Or 3?

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  8. I never really read magazines anymore, but I'll pay more attention to them now.

    I also want to profess my love for Starbucks. Not because I like their coffee, but because I love the people who stand in line waiting for their coffee.

    Just sitting in the shop and describing, in my own words, the details I notice about a random stranger, or imagining the array of thoughts going through that person's mind, is often very inspiring to me.

    The best about Starbucks is the 'magic minute', when someone has paid for his or her coffee, but is still waiting for it. In this minute you can ask any question you like and at least get some kind of answer, for no-one will leave without the coffee they already paid for (at least not where I live).

    Sometimes I wish Starbucks would start selling Irish coffee, it would help me to utilize the magic minute more often.

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  9. Penguin—I love this! Smart, clever, creative. But do you really mean "any question" lol

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  10. Well I haven't really asked 'any question', for I haven't been able to make myself forget that Starbucks doesn't sell gin-tonic or white wine, but muddy frappuccinos and piping hot coffee instead.

    I usually make sure that I can blame something else for my question. A tiny compliment or something inappropriate about the Starbucks staff.

    It's not often that I go to Starbucks. What I want to do for some time already, is to confront people with a short poem and ask for their opinion:

    (This one is by Wendy Cope)

    The day he left was horrible
    That evening she went through hell
    His absence wasn't the problem
    but the corkscrew had gone as well

    (Question: Is that all there is to me/us/men/you?)

    Everyone should approach strangers at Starbucks, it's fun.

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  11. I think that's a great idea! And the best blogs come out of the blogger's true interests, not from some pre-conceived idea of what blogging "should" be or "has to" be.

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  12. Nina—Thank you! It took me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to blog. When the notion of trying to recreate one of the methods we used to generate successful fiction occurred to me, I thought it was worth trying.

    Time will tell but meanwhile, it's fun & interesting to pick out provocative links & write grabby headlines.

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  13. So coll! I'll have to add it to my list of blogs to follow. For even if I don't view it everyday, I'll be able to find it quickly when I need an idea to span an idea - he he I love that thought.

    :} Cathryn

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  14. Cathryn—Thanks! Proud to be added to your list! :-)

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  15. This is a great idea, Ruth. As my own blog is an idea sparker for writers, using photographs to create settings, characters and/or stories, I'm really curious to see what you come up with. This will definitely be on my "must watch" list!

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  16. Susan—Thanks! I absolutely agree that photos/images are excellent idea sparkers. Your blog is a big help to writers looking for that elusive new/different idea.

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  17. Yes!I love this idea, mostly because I love to repurpose. Isn't that what this is, after all? I read a story in The New York Times Style section (a treasure trove of ideas!) about people Googling themselves and turned it into a psychological suspense. Looking forward to your blog!

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  18. Eva—Thank you. I look forward to seeing you on the blog.

    Repurposing is a terrific way to put it. A description of the way an athlete overcomes adversity might well be repurposed to describe a gritty single mom working to earn enough to send her kid to college. A description of a ditzy socialite might be repurposed to add unexpected dimension to the portrait of a scientist or a philosopher.

    Every writer will react differently & use the basic material differently. I hope to build a full menu of "recyclable" material for just that reason!

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